Friday, October 29, 2010

Google Reader Roundup

Happy Halloween, lovies!

First, mega-trombone congratulations to my very own San Francisco Giants!! I'm over the moon, as is everyone else in my house, to see the Giants in the World Series, and also to be so solidly winning and thumping the Rangers. Apologies to my Texan buddies and readers--truly sorry, but you know that one of the teams I dislike the most in Scottish football is Rangers (out of Glasgow) so it is extra sweet to see my Giants beating a team with that name.

The first Giants game I ever went to was when I was twelve. The game was against the St. Louis Cardinals and I remember some really dodgy tactics on the part of the Cardinals, but I was hooked--and instantly in love with several of the Giants players. I was twelve, after all.

Now then.

  • Roni Loren has a guest post over at Gemma Noon's The Literary Project that discusses how to get and keep blog followers. Roni is very good at retaining blog followers--she has over 700 or some such ridiculous figure, so she knows what she's talking about.
  • Tina Lynn creeps us out with her entry of Mia's Halloween blogfest, which you can still join. Tina Lynn's story is good because if you follow Tina Lynn, you know that she CAN actually see and hear dead people. Knowing that fact made her story really shiver-licious.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Something to Get Inciting About

Today I have a wonderful (really!!) guest post on the inciting event in plotting from the tireless and wonderful YA author Janice Hardy, whose new book, Blue Fire, was released this month! Janice is just wrapping up the last of her very thorough blog tour here. If you missed my interview with her, check here.

Now, I hand the reins over to Janice!

The inciting event. You can’t talk about how to write good openings without someone mentioning it. But what exactly is it and how do you make it work for your novel?

What it is: The inciting event is that moment early on in your story when things irrevocably change for your protag. The event that sets them on the path that will become the novel, the major conflict, the whole reason someone picked up the book in the first place.

Where it is: Within the first 30 to 50 pages of your manuscript. Now, this doesn’t that mean it has to come between pages 30 and 50. Just somewhere between page one and 30, or page one and 50. Some books require a little more set up. If you have a larger word count, the first 50 pages might work better for you. A smaller word count, 30 pages is more than enough time to get to the inciting event.

How do you make it work? Use it as a bridge between an intriguing opening scene and the core conflict of your novel.

My fantasy novel, The Shifter, has an inciting event that works well as an example. The basic story is:

A girl with the unique ability to heal by shifting pain from person to person, discovers it’s the only weapon she has to save her missing sister.

The book is about Nya (my protag) trying to save her sister. That’s my external core conflict. But it’s also has an internal core conflict about Nya struggling with using her powers as a weapon. These two conflicts pretty much sum up the book. However, having the sister go missing in the first chapter gets to the story too soon, and there’s not enough time to let the stakes and tension build. I needed to set the scene a bit before I threw the reader into the core story.

There’s nothing wrong with setting the scene in the opening, as long as what’s happening in the opening is interesting, hooks the reader, and sets up the core conflict. That’s exactly what an inciting event is for.

The opening scene in The Shifter starts with Nya stealing eggs for breakfast. She gets caught, tries to escape, and in the process of that escape, uses her pain shifting ability. Naturally, someone sees her use it. This all takes places in the first ten pages of Chapter One. Someone seeing her shift is my inciting event.

Why this works: It gives the reader a likable protagonist and something interesting going on right away. An unusual theft where someone might get caught. It also shows the pain shifting ability in action so readers understand the mechanics of it, and links into what will become the core conflict because of who sees her use that ability. Had Nya not shifted pain in this scene, the rest of the story would not have unfolded as it did. Two very critical things happened here that set the rest of the book’s plot in motion:

  1. She was seen shifting pain by people in a position to tell the bad guys about it.
  2. The people involved in the actual pain shifting later become involved in both the external core conflict and the internal core conflict.

That seems too easy.

You’re right, because jumping right from this to the missing sister would probably leave the reader wondering why the heck we needed that opening scene to begin with. There’s still a lot that has to happen between this seemingly unimportant moment and the core conflict. That’s the bridge part. And I think this is where a lot of the confusion over inciting events comes in. The inciting event doesn’t launch your core conflict, it launches the steps that gets you to your core conflict.

Once Nya made those critical connections, I needed to show how those connections and events get her to the core conflict. I also needed to let readers meet the sister so they’d care when she disappears. See Nya’s world and discover the inherent dangers there. Care about her, see the trouble starting to snowball, and start to worry about all that trouble catching up to her.

The second half of Chapter One is just that. Nya goes to her sister, you see their respective lives, and the first result of being seen has a consequence by the end of the first chapter (page 20). Something Nya did in the opening scene has now come back to bite her and cause another problem. But we’re still not to the core conflict yet.

Chapter Two adds a second consequence that is triggered by the first (still with me?). This is woven into the story as Nya does her day-to-day stuff, and Nya doesn’t even realize what’s going on. By the end of the chapter (page 38), yet another consequence results from her using her shifting ability – three so far for those keeping track. And though the reader doesn’t know it, that consequence connects directly to the internal core conflict of the novel. I’m lining up the plot points so the core conflict will have the most impact once I get there.

But I still don’t go there yet. I’m building the story and suspense. Layering in the bits and pieces so the reader is (hopefully) intrigued by what’s going on and wondering how all of this ties together. They know from reading the cover copy that the sister disappears, so they’ll be curious about what aspects of the story so far will connect back to that.

Chapter Three throws in the first hint of the core conflict, but just a hint. The plot pieces for both the internal and external core conflicts aren’t lined up yet. It’s important to get those set up and ready so they both clash at about the same time for the most dramatic punch I can get. By the end of Chapter Three, (page 57) I’ve tied the plot back into the opening scene yet again, by bringing back one of those critical first scene characters. Nya’s actions in Chapter One have another direct consequence on what’s happening to her (consequence number four).

In Chapter Four, everything finally comes full circle. By the end of the chapter (page 92) the core conflict takes over the plot, the internal core conflict has begun, and the story can really get down to business. The novel has 370 pages, so this is roughly 25% of the book. If you use the Three Act Structure like I do, it’s Act One. It sets up the core conflict, but the plot is already in full swing, and has been since line one.

That’s a lot to happen between that inciting event on page ten, and the core conflict event on page 92. But all the groundwork, the reasons why those later events mattered, the world building, the character introductions, all the stuff that goes into a story had to happen first. A reader had to care about this missing sister, care about Nya, and see how much trouble she was going to get into because of this problem.

But notice how much plot went into those first four chapters. And how all those plot moments led to the core conflict, and were triggered by that simple little shifting inciting event. The steps between the two events.

Your inciting event doesn’t have to be a huge deal if that doesn’t fit your story. It can be subtle, or it can be in your face obvious. But it has to lead somewhere and cause something that’s much bigger, even it if takes you a few chapters to get there. Bridges take lots of steps to cross, but if there’s a great view along the way, folks will enjoy the journey.

Thanks, Janice! Great information!

Here is some more information about Janice and her books.

Blue Fire

Part fugitive, part hero, fifteen-year-old Nya is barely staying ahead of the Duke of Baseer’s trackers. Wanted for a crime she didn’t mean to commit, she risks capture to protect every Taker she can find, determined to prevent the Duke from using them in his fiendish experiments. But resolve isn’t enough to protect any of them, and Nya soon realizes that the only way to keep them all out of the Duke’s clutches is to flee Geveg. Unfortunately, the Duke’s best tracker has other ideas.

Nya finds herself trapped in the last place she ever wanted to be, forced to trust the last people she ever thought she could. More is at stake than just the people of Geveg, and the closer she gets to uncovering the Duke’s plan, the more she discovers how critical she is to his victory. To save Geveg, she just might have to save Baseer—if she doesn’t destroy it first.

About Janice

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER, and BLUE FIRE from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel.

Janice's blog, The Other Side of the Story

Monday, October 25, 2010

How Chuck Norris Got Me Cupcakes

…And other lessons on social media.

One thing I really passionately believe about social media is that it’s social. That means you interact and engage with people. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, LinkedIn…they’re not for soapboxing or for pushing or for advertising. They’re for talking with others. I truly believe that some of the biggest strides into my writing growth have been made via connections I made through blogging and Twitter. I’ve made great friends. I’ve gotten attention. And I’ve gotten cupcakes.

TH Mafi, or Tahereh, knows how to use Twitter for interaction with others very, very well. Last week, she tweeted a link to Crumbs, a national cupcake shop. Crumbs has great marketing—excellent logo, packaging, and a dynamite web site that clearly shows its creations in all their glory. Best of all, you can create six packs of cupcake yumminess and have them shipped to people. So Tahereh makes us ALL drool over these cupcakes, and then throws out the offer of sending a 6 pack of cupcakes to whomever tells her the best joke. The cheesier the better, she tweets.

Oh, it was on.

Now, as many of you know, my brain has not been operating at peak capacity lately. I am officially scatterbrained and definitely have a hard time thinking—not just on demand, but any time. So I tweeted the stupidest possible joke to Tahereh ever, and sat back. Naturally, it was disgusting and unfunny. Minutes ticked by, and then I see her tweeting her top two favorite jokes—neither authored by moi. (The humanity!) So I tweeted this: >:(

Which can roughly be translated as:

Tahereh thought that was hi-LAR-ious. I tried one more joke: Two antennas met on a roof, fell in love and got married. The ceremony wasn't much, but the reception was excellent. Then Tahereh tweeted that she’s a sucker for Chuck Norris jokes.

Being resourceful, I scoured my mind and came up with what I could, and asked the tinterwebs to supply what I couldn’t. Ohhh, don’t be scoffing at me. Don’t think I didn’t Google “Cheesy jokes” too and saw the EXACT SAME ONES that were front running winners. OH yeah, I had their number, all right! All I’m saying is that it was a combination of my untiring and spectacularly stupendous wit and also Google that came up with the Chuck Norris jokes. And, yes, I mined them to select only the funniest—funniest to me, that is.

Turns out, Tahereh thought they were funny too, and I won the cupcakes. It was a glorious, fabulous moment and illustrated both how quick and artful Twitter is, and how well it can be used to futher conversations and laughter, no matter what the premise. You see, Tahereh gets my sense of humor, and I suspect it wasn’t just the Chuck Norris jokes. No, it probably was my overall interaction with her, and the frowny face at the start that did it. We made each other laugh.

And let me tell you, the cupcakes were freaking delicious.

I ordered: pumpkin, apple cobbler, half-baked, s’mores, cookies and cream, and grasshopper.
Go here for a full cupcake review.

And the winning Chuck Norris jokes?

  • Chuck Norris CAN believe it’s not butter
  • When Chuck Norris falls in water, Chuck Norris doesn't get wet. Water gets Chuck Norris.
  • There is no theory of evolution, just a list of creatures Chuck Norris allows to live.
  • Chuck Norris doesn't read books. He stares them down until he gets the information he wants.
  • If you have $3, and Chuck Norris has $3, Chuck Norris has more.
  • Chuck Norris once kicked a horse in the chin. Its descendants are known today as giraffes.
  • Chuck Norris is the reason why Waldo is hiding.
  • When the boogeyman goes to sleep, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.

So my point is this: use Twitter, blogging, or whatever form of social media you like to interact, share, laugh, and inspire others. That’s what it’s there for, and I know I’m much richer for it –the currency being laughter, support, and cupcakes.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Google Reader Roundup

Oh, oh, oh! What a Roundup we have this week! This week was on FIRE in terms of announcements, epic blog posts, and very helpful writing tips. Read on:

  • Mega-mega-mega-trombone-boy-night-mega congratulations to Roni Loren for her two-book book deal! Read all about it here. Roni is a smart writer whose time has come...believe it. Suck up your envy and go congratulate her.
  • Nathan Bransford's guest poster Kay Elam defines the cozy mystery, and thank God she does because I have long wondered what exactly it means!
  • The Guardian's Robert McCrum (who, by the by, is married to Sarah Lyall, whose book I'm reading RIGHT NOW!!!) writes about Ford Madox Ford's page 99 challenge. Very interesting indeed.
  • Janice Hardy at Meghan Ward's Writerland talks about dialogue. "Don't miss this post," Sierra said, "or else you'll be toast." (Rhymes, yes!)
Happy weekend, darlings! I have a very sweet, cupcakey post for you on Monday. (Yes, cupcakes!)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Interview with Author Janice Hardy

Today I'm very excited to welcome Janice Hardy to the blog again. Janice's second book, Blue Fire, was released this month, and she's been doing a really fantastic round of blog tours (click here for a full list and links).

Janice, a true professional with a sharp sense of the craft. She was my very first interview victim subject this time last year, and I'm delighted to ask her questions again. More than anything, Janice is generous and genuinely nice--and has an amazing tolerance for me people who send her tons of questions full of typos. Janice is a true professional, and it's my special pleasure to host her here today.

She'll be back here on October 27 guest posting about first chapters...definitely a post you will not want to miss.

Enough blabbing from me. On to Janice!

Tell us a little bit about Blue Fire.
Nya and the gang are on the run, trying to avoid soldiers and trackers, and of course, the Duke. Nya is still struggling with what she had to do at the end of book one, and feeling pulled in all kinds of directions. The gang decides to flee the city, but things go horribly wrong and they end up in Baseer (not everyone willingly). I really enjoyed putting Nya in the enemy’s city, because she has such a narrow worldview, and this forces her to reevaluate everything she believes and knows. And she learns a few shocking truths that pretty much turns her world inside out.

Blue Fire is your second published novel. How did the experience of having the first in the series already out shape how you approached the writing and editing process for Blue Fire?
It’s like having a whole lot of backstory to deal with that you can’t change. What happened in The Shifter directly affected the plot of Blue Fire, so I had to find a way to make new readers care and understand the story without relying on book one. I struggled for quite a bit before I realized I had to just pretend book one didn’t exist and write book two. Once I had the plot down, I could go back and flesh out where I needed to with the backstory. But it took me five tries to get it right.

When you started The Shifter, did you know how the story would carry through three books?
No, because it wasn’t until about halfway through that I realized it could be a trilogy. I had planned on one book only. Even then, I only had a vague idea of the full story. I knew the arc of the war and the core conflict between the cities, but not how Nya fit into it. That I got to discover as I wrote the trilogy.

As you were writing Blue Fire, and even now with your untitled third one, did you think, “Oh man, if only I’d done THIS plot line instead of this” -- basically finding yourself blocked into a corner or plot? What I’m really asking is about the permanency of your plot since Book 1, The Shifter, is already in print.
Oh, all the time. With book three, I was still doing copyedits on Blue Fire, so I was actually able to go back and change a few things to fit the plot of three. But Blue Fire had to suffer with what I’d done in book one. There were things I really wanted to change as I learned more about the characters. It does force you to get creative to figure out ways to do what you want without contradicting yourself. I’m expecting an email or two from folks who notice details that kinda fell by the wayside, but so far no one has noticed. They’re not major details or anything, but stuff I expected to be more important as the story went on that turned out to be irrelevant and got swept away. Just don’t look under the rug, and it’ll be fine.

Two books in, with your third underway, have your attitudes about being published changed from when The Shifter came out? That is to say, are you more jaded, optimistic, hopeful, or scared?
Not jaded at all, but optimistic, hopeful and scared fluctuate depending on the day. I get optimistic when good reviews or fan emails come in, hopeful that the series will continue to build and gain fans, then scared that no one will like it. It’s a wonderful experience overall, but it does have its terrifying moments when you fear it will all end and you’ll never sell another book. But all I can do is write that next book and make it the best I can. Everything else is out of my control.
Are there any marketing activities you found successful with The Shifter? (And which you’ll repeat for Blue Fire?)
It’s hard to say because there’s really no way to tell what has worked and what hasn’t. My signings have mostly gone well for a new author, and I enjoy those so I’ll keep doing them. The school visits are a great way to tell teens about the book, and I’m doing more this year than last. Blogging seems to be getting my name out there and the blog has grown nicely in the last year. I’ve been very happy with my brochure business cards, and I did more this year, though I skipped the bookmarks. I did postcards to give to schools instead.

What happens after your third book in The Healing Wars series comes out? What are your plans for future books?
A vacation! Actually, by then I hope to have my next novel written and ready to go to my agent. The plan is to start work on that in January, but it’ll depend on when the edits for Shifter 3 are finished. My next book will be a YA fantasy about an undercover teen spy, and I’m really excited about that one. I’ve wanted to do it for a while. Past that I’m not sure. I have five or six ideas, and I’ll have to see where my career is to know which is the best way to go. If The Healing Wars does well, it’ll probably be another MG fantasy series. If it doesn’t, it’ll probably be one of my YA ideas.

What are some recent books you’ve read?
I just finished Rash, by Pete Hautman, plus the first two I,Q books from Roland Smith (who is fast becoming one of my favorite authors), Changeless, by Gail Carriger, Only the Good Spy Young, by Ally Carter.

Have your social media habits changed since you started your blog (The Other Side of the Story) and had The Shifter published?
Some. I try to stay active on forums and social sites, but those are always the first to go when I’m swamped. I did just join Twitter, though I have no clue what to do with it (grin).

Have you been able to quit your day job with this series or since The Shifter came out?
Not yet, and I don’t expect to for a while (if ever). I keep hearing it takes five books or five years, and that if you’re living off the royalties of your backlist by then, you can quit. I have a few years and books to go, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

Tell us a little bit about the three-book contract for The Healing Wars series. You obviously hadn’t written Blue Fire or the third book, which you’re working on now, when you got the contract. What kind of proposal did you need to sell the series?
My agent asked me for a synopsis of books two and three that she could show editors. I did a one-page synopsis for Blue Fire (it wasn’t called that of course) and a half page for book three. That was it.

Can you give us any hints about what to expect from Book 3 in The Healing Wars?
You’ll get to see the war from the series title, and Nya will discover she has a few unexpected tricks up her sleeve. You’ll re-visit some old characters and return with some new ones you’ll meet in Blue Fire. And Nya will get offered a very interesting career choice.

Thanks for taking the time, Janice! You're fantastic!

About Blue Fire
Part fugitive, part hero, fifteen-year-old Nya is barely staying ahead of the Duke of Baseer’s trackers. Wanted for a crime she didn’t mean to commit, she risks capture to protect every Taker she can find, determined to prevent the Duke from using them in his fiendish experiments. But resolve isn’t enough to protect any of them, and Nya soon realizes that the only way to keep them all out of the Duke’s clutches is to flee Geveg. Unfortunately, the Duke’s best tracker has other ideas.

Nya finds herself trapped in the last place she ever wanted to be, forced to trust the last people she ever thought she could. More is at stake than just the people of Geveg, and the closer she gets to uncovering the Duke’s plan, the more she discovers how critical she is to his victory. To save Geveg, she just might have to save Baseer—if she doesn’t destroy it first.

About Janice Hardy
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER, and BLUE FIRE from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel.

Awesome links
Buy Blue Fire

Janice's web site

Janice's Writing Blog, The Other Side of the Story

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Romance Rule

Last Wednesday I talked about rules. Most of you in the comments said rules were meant to be broken, as long as you understood the spirit and purpose of the rule. I said I would elaborate on a discussion Roni Loren and I had last week regarding a particular rule I'd tried to sneak around, but which I wasn't able to in the end.

It is the rule that in romantic fiction, or any kind of story where romance is present, typically, the first person the heroine shows interest in is her ultimate love. (Forgive the gender assumptions.) In other words, if Jane is going to end up with Jack, she'd better not be head over heels with Mark first. Or she can be, but Jack had better be mentioned first, and in a way that shows Jane clearly interested in him.

In When Harry Met Sally, we don't see Sally messing about with some other guy first, looking like she loves him. No, we see her with Harry, even though she won't be with Harry until the end of the story.

Getting it Wrong?
There are some stories that get it wrong, or else teeter on the brink of showing us someone else (or actually flat out do). Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Look at Gone With the Wind. Scarlett is super in love with Ashley Wilkes, and he remains a fixture for her for the rest of the book--but he isn't really her true love, as she finds out late in the game. Was the rule broken here? Not sure. Scarlett is crushed when she hears Ashley is marrying her cousin Melanie. She screams at Ashley and rails at him, and then immediately meets Rhett Butler who heard the whole thing. Did it work? I think it does, because Rhett appears as Ashley spurns her--and capitalizes on her upset. But it's iffy, and maybe that's okay since it takes Scarlett freaking forever to figure out Ashley is a big fat loser--which we could all see from the start.

How about Pride and Prejudice, everyone's favorite? Mr. Darcy is the first man who catches Elizabeth's attention, but not in a good way and she certainly isn't immediately interested in him. Ah, but we know he's going to be important because of the reaction he inspires, kind of like Rhett Butler. Thus, Darcy is still first in that respect.

So where did I go wrong?
I had my protagonist dreaming about her neighbor, whom she slavers over at the beginning of the book. But she doesn't end up with him. Roni pointed out the rule and, being the sweetheart she is, caveated it with it being a typical romance genre rule and it might not apply to other genres. But I think it does. I thought hard about it, and most romantic story lines I've read has this rule firmly in place, or else manipulated so it's clear. So, I played around with it, and had my protagonist see her eventual love across the street, and wonder about him, right off the bat. Then she dreams about her neighbor. It's very small, but it foreshadows what is to come, and it got her man in there first.

One of Roni's comments was that by introducing the neighbor first, she had her expectations set on him instead. And therein lies the importance of this rule--we all know romantic formula (whether or not we can execute it!). And we know what we expect when we read it, too.

I apologize for my lame romance story examples here. When I write these posts, I go completely blank when I try to think of examples. I mean like, had-to-consult-Wikipedia-for-GWTW-plot-summary-blank, even though I know that book and story well. A smarter blogger would pack this post chock full of awesome examples. That's where you guys come in, cause you're all super smart.

Can you think of any popular stories where the main love interest is very clearly first? And can you think of any where he or she isn't, yet it works (or maybe it doesn't)?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Google Reader Roundup

  • At the risk of hideously offending everyone else here on the list, the most fabulous post I read all week is Kristen Lippert-Martin's Query Letter Manifesto, Part 1. (I assume Part 2 is up today, so look for that at her blog too.) KLM is one of the funniest bloggers I know, and smart too. Also, I'm slightly afraid she will beat me up.
  • YA author Janice Hardy, whose second book Blue Fire dropped October 5, is in the midst of a blog tour (and will be here Oct 20 and Oct 27!). But one of her first stops on her tour at at wonderful Anne Allen's blog, where Janice gives one of the best discussions of blog tours and promotion I've read. (P.S. You can see a full list of Janice's blog stops here.)
  • Peter Shankman has some great social media truths in a post called "Are we ever going to get it?" Incidentally, while the article is excellent, I found it quite amusing that the first thing under the header was "New here? Subscribe to my RSS feed!" I suspect that most people do not how to use an RSS feed. I have one for this very blog and I don't really know what to do with it and I would wager that if I were to do a heat test to see where on my blog people clicked (you can do this in Google Analytics), then I would find that no one has clicked on it, because no one else knows what to do with it, either. Just saying.
  • Roni Loren asks if those first lines really are important--a post inspired by our lengthy discussion this week, which inspired my post about breaking rules on Wednesday, and also the one you have coming on Monday. Very inspiring conversation, this was! Anyway, check her post out because as usual it's very good.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

When New Isn't as Good as Old

I'd planned today's word to be vicissitude, and even had a whole post scheduled about it. Mostly it centered on how much my mind has turned to soggy oatmeal these past two months. But that wasn't any fun! So instead I want to talk a little bit about being fresh versus sticking with your older formula. (And officially relegate the Wednesday Word to the Occasional Wednesday Word.)

Gap announced yesterday that they were scrapping the new logo they'd rolled out based on the general feeling of calamitous hatred it stirred in Gap "users."

Now, scrapping a logo is a HUGE decision, and one marketing teams don't take lightly. Logos are the embodiment of a company's values, position, and future -- and they matter greatly. Firms get paid lots and lots of money to come up with logos, and you can bet Gap paid a crapton of money for this new one. I can also tell you that these things aren't arbitrary: typically a logo undergoes user testing and general appeal studies before making it out to the public, especially for a widely recognized consumer company such as Gap.

When I saw the new logo, I was pretty much in agreement: it sucked. It lacked any of the authority and traditional, tried and true feeling of the old, and it didn't even use the same font. To me, the new logo could have been created by anyone, used for any company named Gap, and held no identity ties to the clothing company. Apparently, others felt the same way.

But Mr. Sierra took Gap's side: supposedly sales have been down and they wanted to move away from the old traditional look of the blue border. They wanted to be fresh and new, for a new generation. He was all for that.

I can understand that--although I do remain firmly convinced that messing with en established and well-recognized logo will confuse brand recognition and loyalty in consumers. Still, there's something to be said for trying something different, letting go of previous conceptions, and looking forward.

Today I was having a discussion with Roni Loren about a particular tried and true "rule" in romantic fiction (I'll be blogging about it on Monday!). We agreed that rules are meant to be bent and everything depends on the book, the story, the characters, and the genre....but even so, I returned again and again to the rule and thought it through and really felt that it was a strong, good rule (Monday, I promise).

So tell me: do you knowingly break rules in writing to expand freshness and reinvigorate your stories? Does it work, or does it go the way of the new Gap logo? Do you try breaking rules often?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Visual Design For...The Rest of Us

If you’re a former (or current) video game player, then at some point in your life you may been driven by a demented urge to win the damn thing to web sites that provided walkthroughs or cheat guides to the game. And if you did this, then you know that inevitably, there was a format for these guides-- a long text document with technical organization (section 1, 1.1, 1.2 etc). What I could never figure out was, “WHY on earth if you’re putting this on a WEB PAGE would you not provide hyperlinks, graphics, or other visual cues? WHY, DEAR GOD, WHY?”

Once in a fit of visual frustration, I even emailed the author of such a guide and she responded that the web site (IGN I think it was) required the guides in this format. That didn't answer the question of why, but the author was sweet and agreed that the text guides were heinous beyond all belief. Later, she scored the book contract with Prima to write the guide to the game, where her walkthroughs and cheats could be displayed with graphics, headers, and appealing layout. I was so proud of her.

Last week I clicked on a link for a post about branding and writers. But when I arrived, I am sorry to say I couldn’t read it because it was one long block of text. No separations, no headers, no guides. I promptly clicked my butt out of there, amused that a post on branding would have violated such a basic rule about readability.

But I don’t hold it against that author. After all, it’s hard to know what to do in the first place. Don’t spend time feeling bad if you don’t know. You’re not supposed to know. Unless you took visual design courses or studied this stuff, how would you know?

Well, I know. And I’m going to share some basics with you so no one ever clicks out of a post that you put a lot of time and effort into writing.

Use Contrast
Contrast -- easily rendered as bolded text-- creates a pleasing relief for eyeballs. And it’s noticeable. I remember when I was a tech writer there was this engineer who loved to CAPITALIZE everything important. I told him that the human eye actually skims over capitalized words because there’s no peaks and valleys. Harder to read! He denied it, but empirical research exists that proves it. So keep that in mind. CAPITALIZATION SUCKS AND IF YOU WRITE EVERYTHING IN CAPS, IT’S MORE LIKELY TO BE SKIMMED. I prefer bolding -- and for extra kick, bolding in a different color.

Use Colors Effectively
Here’s color theory in two seconds for you: the human eye likes warm colors (reds, oranges, yellows). And I can tell you from years of walking tradeshow floors that the most noticeable exhibits of all the exhibits trying to be noticed are the ones that used bright colors to draw the eyes. Bright green worked really well, but it’s less likely to work in text headers than it is on big signs on a tradeshow floor. If you use bright green, use it in big blocks of color, not text. Better to use orange, which does the same job as green, and it's a warm color.

Break Your Crap Up
Make your stuff palatable by giving me info chunks. It’s called “chunking” in the tech writing field, and it’s about giving doses of information in digestable sizes, not one long spaghetti plate of words that I can’t handle. This means headers and pictures--even if they seem obvious. The goal is getting readers to spend time on your post--not click through because they don’t have time to digest long blocks of text. And headers help people see what you have going on.

Be as Short as Possible
This rule is really an extension of the chunking rule. You’ll notice that I violated the shortness rule here, as I do almost every day. But I also broke my large chunk of introductory text up with graphics, to ease your pain. So when you simply can’t be short, give the eye some relief in the form of diverting graphics.

Don’t Use More than Two Fonts
This really is a legitimate rule. Use more than two fonts in the same document/blog/whatever, and people’s brains start overloading and smoking. You don’t want that. And while we’re on fonts, use ones that are readable. Don't use a western font or anything that relies on thick, narrow letters. Hard to read! When I started at my current company, they had a logo with the company name in a font that was actually unreadable. One of my first actions was to change it to a font that was much more appropriate -- and readable from a distance away. It caused a major war, but I won out because no one could quite argue that the unreadable font was actually readable, only that it was “cool.” (Which it wasn’t.)

Know that White Space is Your Friend
The number one mistake I see non-designers make is to clutter a page up with extra things. There is a fear of white (or open) space, as though all that space will show you up for being a non-designer. Not true! Quite the opposite! In design, simple is always cleaner and clearer, and you will never go wrong with putting less. That goes for any page element. To illustrate, here is a blog that uses white space effectively, for a clean, clear look (it's TH Mafi's blog--and she works in design in some capacity, as you can probably guess). And on the flip side, here is a web site that is considered extremely awful. And just for kicks, this one too.

I hope this helps. There is a fantastic book on this subject that I highly recommend:

The Non-Designers Design Book
by Robin Williams

Friday, October 8, 2010

Google Reader Roundup

  • I'm so pleased to welcome YA author Janice Hardy here at the blog on Wednesday Oct 20 and then again on Wednesday Oct 27. Janice is insanely talented and clever, and I can't wait to support her in the release of her second novel, Blue Fire. One post will feature a special guest blog from Janice on first chapters, and the other post will be an interview with her. You can see a full list of her blog stops here.
  • Roni Loren has a great send up of the tweeting intern deal. If you didn't hear about that because, like me, your memory and/or attention span these days is like a sieve, then Roni breaks it down nicely.
  • Carrie Heim Binas gives us, for no reason other than it's awesome, this meta cat. Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wednesday Word: Ersatz

Today's Word is another one of those ones that I am embarrassed to admit that I thought meant the opposite of what it means. It's ersatz, and I think the z tricked me into thinking it meant something fancy, because it's akin to pizazz or ritz (and you can see why that's completely understandable, since all have z's).

Yeah, I have a master's degree in English. You can tell, right?

Ersatz is a German word that means a substitution or replacement, and I'm given to understand from Wikipedia (which everyone knows is correct, especially after you edit the entry yourself) that in English it infers a subar quality to the substitution. There's a good reason for this. Again according to Wikipedia, in WWII Nazi camps, POWs were served ersatzbrot, or replacement bread, which was made of the lowest grade flour, and sometimes included things like sawdust. Man, I'd be piisssssssssed if sawdust was in my ersatzbrot. But then again, I'd be pissed to be in a POW camp.

Ersatz products were not just for POWs and didn't always include nasty things. During WWII all over Europe, many people did without staples and therefore substitutes other materials for things, like roasting acorns for coffee.

Please forgive this bourgeois transition from the horrors and sufferings of WWII to my own petty (in comparison) desires, but I can tell you right now that I consider any cookie containing raisins to be an insulting ersatz for chocolate chip cookies. The reason is that raisins look like chocolate chips, especially from far away. Like from across the room where you've spied the cookies, only to be vastly disappointed when you hone in on them and find effing raisins instead of chocolate. Raisins are always an ersatz component of cookies. Always.

In writing, we know that adjectives and adverbs are ersatz descriptors, and we also know that telling is ersatz to showing.

So was it just me? Did you know this word? What else is ersatz?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Fear and Loathing of the Short Story

I’m one of those writers who loves the novel. It’s my preferred reading, and for the most part if I read something else--nonfiction or a short story-- it has to be exceptional for me to pick it up (or else required). That isn’t to say I haven’t read lots of nonfiction and short stories; but my love for both reading and writing has always firmly been in the novel camp.

And -- and I admit this in the smallest, pinkest of voices -- I don’t like the whole short story genre. It’s a prejudice grounded in absolutely nothing, probably fear. I have never written a serious short story and have pooh-poohed the format as one I wouldn’t write. This despite that one of my favorite authors, Marian Keyes, is a great short story writer and in fact says she started writing short stories when she started out. I read one of hers in a collection recently (obtained because hers was in it) and hers was well-crafted, clever, quick, and awesome in every way. In fact, it blew my mind and I thought if I could write a story like THAT, then it would be okay indeed.

But still, I stuck dutifully to my usual 85,000 word count novels. I like to draw the story out, I proclaimed. I like room to grow and tell, I said. I like to ignore the possibility of submitting a short story for publication somewhere, because that is a whole other game and I’m not prepared for it, I convinced myself.

And then last week I had a dream and insomnia, in that order. I woke up at 3:30 am and thought a moment on the vividness of the dreams I’d just had. I’ve always told myself fantastic stories in my dreams, and more than one has been the basis for a later story. But this night I was astounded to realize that I remembered the three dreams in detail and that they featured a a common thread while still being quite different. And I realized, I have a short story triptych on my hands! Yes! My short story writing fear can be conquered NOW! And then I fell back asleep and remembered nothing. Always. Always this is the way.

In the morning, I remembered the last of the three dreams very well. The second one I recall not so well, but enough to make up. The first is gone completely. So one evening, I sat down and wrote down the third one, with the goal of 1500 words. And it worked. I couldn’t believe it. It worked! I had a real short story on my hands! I did it and it’s there in first putrid draft state, without being edited and with problems, but ripe for revision into something viable.

Do you write short stories? Where do they fit in with your overall writing preferences? How do you approach them -- by genre, by theme, by word count? If you prefer writing novels, where does the short story fit in with your writing? As for me, although I still love the novel, I clearly need to know more about short stories, and I'm really glad I tackled this format!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Google Reader Roundup

I apologize for some late links in this bunch.

  • This appeared on my twitter feed this week, but it's actually a post from August. It's a fab review of a book over on the Smart Bitches Trashy Books site, and the thing to read here is the author's absolutely hilarious and wonderful response, which shows you the way authors should be. I mean, man. The class that lady has. Read and learn.
  • I'm sorry but I love embarrassing stories. Agent Rachelle Gardener asked for some, the commenters replied. It's a treasure trove of blushing.
  • Author Stephanie Perkins discusses the one healing, saving message that teens should hear: "It gets better."