stories

Storytelling on Social Media – a Parable of Tanks and Rollerskates

Storytelling on Social Media – a Parable of Tanks and Rollerskates

What to write about… what to write about…

This is the question I face when writing this article, or starting a book, or anything else. What do I write about? What do I DO?

So I thought I’d write about that process – and about something that so few of us think about: the power of our words. As writers, we all kinda-sorta-maybe know that. We know that words matter, but many (most? all?) of us think about them in terms of, “I have a story. The story matters. People will like it. People will buy it and I will have a pool of golden duccats that would be the envy of Scrooge McDuck.”

To be sure, I think most people do have that kind of story in them. The trick is finding it, bringing it out, putting it down, and getting the word out (and those are a whole SERIES of blog posts/articles/book, so I won’t try here).

My dad once said (wisely) that talking about important things on social media is like trying to teach rocket science using bumper stickers. To which I would add: with the only difference that we would all agree that the latter is insane.

But not the former. We talk about “important” things all the time, never minding that they a) usually AREN’T that important in the grand scheme of things (and if you think they are, I’d invite you to tell me what you Tweeted last Tuesday), and b) the most important things merit our greatest care and attention.

I’m not telling people here to stop social media. I’m not encouraging silence. I’m saying that we live in a time where communication is possible on a greater scale than would have been imaginable even twenty years ago. I’m saying that this means words are flying around constantly.

And words, I am fond of saying, are the single greatest inhibitor of communication ever invented.

Before words, it was easy. You either hated or feared a person – in which case you ran away and/or beat them with your club made of T-rex femur – or you loved them, in which case you ran TOWARD them and shared your T-rex meat and/or went to the nearest cave to make sweet caveperson love.

Now, though… so many words. So much complicatednessosity. Even that last word is needlessly complicateder than it has to be. But I’m leaving it. BECAUSE IT’S IMPORTANT.

Ultimately, we created words that allowed us to exercise the single greatest power in human history: the power to tell stories. That’s the thing that differentiates us from every other creature, because there’s no other creature capable of telling Beowulf, or creating a sonnet, or writing out blueprints or mathematical equations (which are how science tells ITS most important stories).

We are creatures of stories, you and I. We meet, we converse, we share… and, fundamentally, we spend much of our time misunderstanding.

That’s one of the pitfalls of being a writer: you become convinced that not only are you telling a good story, but that the people for whom you write are hearing the same story you intended to write. This is rarely the case, though, because we all bring ourselves to the stories we hear. The audience is as much a part of the finished product as is the “original” storyteller.

This is even more pronounced on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, you name it. A smiley-face or heart means something vastly different to me than it does to you. Sure, they mean “happy” or “love,” but those words themselves are two upon which oceans of writers have expended infinite words, so obviously there’s a lot of wiggle room there.

“Don’t just write a short story. Start out with an epic, because you gotta build to a short story.” I said that once in jest/not-jest, and there’s truth in it. Writing something short that matters, that’s punchy and interesting… it’s hard. Not least of all because, again, the chances of the audience reading the interesting, cool, deep thing you tried to write is infinitesimally small. They’re going to read the words, but their lives loom larger when the picture is smaller. They’ll bring more of themselves to a short story than they would to a novel, because the author of a short story necessarily leaves more blanks for the audience to fill in. An eight-book epic spanning twenty years of a family’s lives, well, that’s something where the author gets to put a pretty sturdy cage around what he intends, and keep prying audience members from messing with it too much. But a twenty-page short story? A five-hundred word flash fiction piece? Those are really written by the author, interpreted by the audience, and the interpretation disseminated to the masses.

So what, then, a Tweet? A line under an Instagram picture.

Again, this isn’t to condemn those forums. This isn’t to tell people to stay away. But as a writer, I’ve seen far too many times where I thought I was telling one story, and ended up telling one completely differently. I take great care now not just to tell the story, but to make it as close to impossible for the reader to misinterpret it as I can… and I still only succeed a fraction of the time.

Our words are magical. Our words are lovely. They are the brightest of suns. But they also burn, they cut, they corrode. So powerful, and it behooves us to use them wisely and well. Our society has little place or use for hermits; we interact with each other and expect others to contribute to our lives just as we contribute to theirs. But we must remember: we are creatures not of concepts, but of stories. Every word we say, or write, or type, is part of a story that goes into the world, and changes it a bit. We bear every bit as much of a responsibility to do our best to change the world in a good way with every word as we do the responsibility of leaving a world behind that has food and air and water for our kids. But though most of us wouldn’t blow up a dirty bomb in a mall amongst thousands of strangers, we think far too little of lobbing potentially dangerous words into the atmosphere of social media. Then we shrug and say, “Hey, I’m being honest,” or, “Hey, that needed to be said,” or “Hey, I’ve always stood up for what I believed,” without ever asking the more important questions: how does that honesty benefit the world? Did it “need” to be said, or did I just really really wanna say it? And in standing up for what I believed, did I help others, did I harm them, or did I care less about that than I did about just getting something off my chest?

The world is magical. It’s so full of stories, so full of words. We talk, we smile, we laugh, we play. I love all those things – they make me smile myself, and (selfishly) I enjoy stealing others’ stories so I can reshape them in my own image.

But we also stand up and tell people things “for their own good” without getting to know them. We condemn groups as a whole without regard for whether that will actually change their minds or lead to any kind of change. We spit into the wind, because we are ANGRY, DAMMIT, and then are shocked when the wind changes and the person who gets the most spittle on their cheek is not the intended victim, but we ourselves.

Words are important – and there are definitely those that must be said. But we have to be careful. We have to think.

We are storytellers. That is what it is to be human: to experience things, then to take those experiences and boil them down into stories we can tell to (hopefully) make our future experiences and the future experiences of others into something more meaningful and pleasing. But as storytellers, as the most powerful of creatures, we also bear the tremendous responsibility of using that power wisely. If Superman went out and murdered someone – even just once – we would toss him out as our superhero. I’m not talking “I got into some kryptonite and did something over which I had no control,” I’m talking about a day where Supes just gets tired of it all, throws up his hands, and heat visions his frickin’ neighbor who constantly plays house mixes with full bass to death. At that point, we are done with him. He is no longer not a hero, he is forever unredeemable.

But we can lose control. We can post in the moment, because IT MUST BE SAID IT MUST BE SAID NOW IT MUST BE SAID THIS WAY BECAUSE I FEEL IT MUST BE SO.

I am a storyteller. I am a human. So are you, those of you who read this. So let us tell good stories. Let us tell kind ones. Sometimes kindness is painful (ask any child who just had a tetanus shot or got a cavity filled what he or she thought of it). But kindness is never unthinking, or motivated by my feelings of the moment – it is motivated by plans that will benefit someone’s future.

The best stories are these. Whenever someone asks me to write an article or a guest post, and I always try to think of something useful to write. There’s story tips, there’s craft how-tos. I can talk about making a relatable villain, or dealing with suspension of disbelief for a zombie story. All that’s important, but all it boils down to at its base is the fact that the story that matters deserves a well-crafted vehicle.

So craft your own vehicles well. And remember that Twitter is just as much a storytelling venue as is Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Remember perhaps as well that when we use social media as a vehicle for our stories, it’s not a rollerskate; as often as not it’s a tank with a single devastating shot. Let us take care to shoot only things we’ve really thought about, and really aimed for; collateral damage is horrid in war, but for some reason it deserves no notice when I’m posting on “my” wall – a wall of “mine” that is bought and paid for and designed and maintained by other people without any input on my part, which is the strangest definition of “mine” I have ever heard.

And maybe we should sometimes not shoot at all. Perhaps we should get out of the tank, and take a walk. That’s how we actually meet people with whom we’d like to share our T-rex meat and make sweet caveperson love.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, MbC Must-read

Epub vs. Tradpub

There are a lot of articles across the interweb (and if it’s on your computer, it must be true!) about which is better – traditional publishing or epublishing.
 
Oddly, they seem to come down across party lines: people who are traditionally published, or who work for large publishing houses, tend to say that trad-pub is the way to go; people who have their work primarily on Kindles and Nooks and iPads and Smashwords scream about the future of epub and the death of print.
 
I know. Weird, right?
 
I wanted to set the record straight.
 
First of all: I am primarily epub myself. I have a few olde-tyme print books, but I’m one of Amazon’s Most Popular Horror Writers, a #1 Kindle bestseller, and a repeat bestseller on almost every one of Amazon’s major fiction genre lists (sci-fi, horror, fantasy, etc.). I write everything from kids’ books about magic to grown up books about evil things that go bump in the night. My most recent novel, Strangers, has spent months on Amazon’s various horror bestseller lists, and I anticipate my next book will do even better.
 

I make a living writing, and a huge chunk of it is digital.
 

I also used to be a lawyer. And in good lawyerly fashion, I will render my verdict. Which is better, epub or trad-pub?
 

It depends.
 

Awesome lawyer answer, huh?
 

But it’s the truth. Because the reality is that each offers goods and bads. So let’s talk about each:
  

EPUB:
 

The Good here is that you have complete control. You get to do whatever you want, whenever you want.
 

The Bad here is largely the same. You have to do everything. Which is why there are a lot of drecky, poorly-edited books with ugly covers on epub.
 

I spend a lot of time and effort working on my books. Not just the drafts, but the edits, the layout, the covers… everything. I taught myself image manipulation (meaning, Photoshop-type stuff) so that I could produce good covers. I taught myself conversion principles so that I could make sure I did a good job getting my book to your Kindle without sacrificing layout. A lot of writers aren’t willing to do this; they slap a product together… and it shows. I would invite you to check out the differences between my covers (just go to michaelbrentcollings.com) and the ones at my friend Nathan Shumate’s lousybookcovers.com. Sadly, you often can judge a book by its cover.
 

Now, if you’re looking for “fast” then epub is the way to go – you can write fast, put a cover together fast, and get it to market fast. You might also hear crickets chirping exceedingly quickly as there is a concerted rush of absolutely no one to buy your book. And that’s not because the audience is bad. It’s because (more often than not) your book is. The cover is lousy, the layout is unprofessional, the story is been-there done-that.
 

Listen up: I firmly believe that everyone – everyone – has great stories in them. Stories worth telling. Stories people will gladly buy. But I also firmly believe that everyone has to practice to get to the point where they know how to tell those stories properly.
 

Think of a doctor: how many of you would go to a doctor who, when asked about his qualifications, shrugged and said, “Well, I went to a doctor once. And he sucked so I was, like, ‘I can do that!’ And then I, like, became a doctor. And stuff. That’ll be a hundred dollars.”?
 

No, you want a doctor who a) studied, b) graduated top of his/her class, c) practiced at an amazing hospital/medical practice, and d) preferably has been doing this for at least a decade. And that last is important, because practice and experience matter. No matter how smart the doc is, until he’s been around the block a few times, he’s not going to be all that good a doctor.
 

Writing is the same way. Most writers just suck until they’ve treated their writing with the seriousness of a PhD program, spent years honing their skills, years more practicing before trusted audiences, and then maybe they’ll be pro-level.
 

And epub will not shortcut any of that process.
 

Epub is faster. Faster to market. But if you’re marketing crap, or if you’re marketing your unprepared skills, it just means a faster failure, too.
 
 

TRAD-PUB:
 

The Good here is that you have help. The Bad here is that you have to give up control. You will have editors, you will have layout artists and cover artists. You will have other people giving input.* You will then have to actually listen to that input. And you will have to wait on it. Epub is a matter of writing the book and then uploading it to the outlet(s) of your choice. Boom. With trad-pub you:
 

1) Write the book.
2) Send query letters to agents.
3) Wait for two to twelve months.
4) Have an agent request your book (this is best-case scenario; most often you get rejected and have to start again from scratch).
5) Send in your book.
6) Wait another two to twelve months.
7) The agent accepts your book (again, best-case scenario here).
8) The agent sends your book around to publishers.
9) Someone accepts it after two to twelve months (do I even have to say the best-case thing again?).
10) The book gets plugged into their production scenario for sometime in the next year (very fast) to three years (not unheard of).
Total wait time from end of book to book on shelves: one to five YEARS.
 

Yikes. That’s time you’re not getting paid, by the way. You’ll get an advance (see my footnote below – if not getting an advance, why are you doing this?), but no money being actively earned in that time. There’s also the chance that during production the editor who loved your book and championed it will get fired or quit and your book will become an “orphan” with no one to champion it and will never see the light of day (this happens), or the company itself will go bust or get bought and the same thing will occur (this happens, too).
 

The upside is that trad-pub books have a tremendous amount of access to the market: they get into bookstores, libraries, WalMarts, Costcos, etc. They are in airports and liquor stores. They get foreign market rights and sell movie rights more often. They are more likely to end up making the extreme big bucks than epub. That’s changing as epub becomes more and more of a force to be reckoned with, but as of now if you want to get to the very top of the heap, you have to work with trad-pub at some point.
 

Also, because you do have a lot of talent at the top, your books are more likely to look and be presented better. I like my books. A lot. Could they look better? Sure. Would I love to see them at the checkout aisle at my local supermarket? Heck, yeah!
 

But, for me, I would prefer to get my books to market, make my fans happy, and put money in my pocket. And that brings me to…
 
 

The choice
 

Be aware: you will be choosing. If you epub, that book is dead to the trad-pub world. No big traditional publisher wants to take Amazon’s sloppy seconds, unless that ebook has sold in excess of something like 100,000 copies at around five bucks a copy. Then they’ll talk. (But if that happens, why do you really need them?) So if you’re hoping to parley your ebook success into a publishing contract with Penguin for that book… yeah, good luck with that. In fact, for a lot of agents and publishers, the fact that you’re epublished at all will be a black mark against you. Because how dare you!
 

Silly? Maybe. But true.
 

It’s something to be aware of. I think that’s going to keep changing more and more, but then if you do make a successful career for yourself you run into the problem of outgrowing agents and publishers: I regularly have offers from publishers I have to turn down because they can’t afford me, and most agents won’t touch me because they won’t be able to meet my expectations for the next phase of my career.
 

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to epub. I think Shakespeare said that.
 
 

Conclusion
 

Epub and trad-pub are both awesome. I have books – real and electronic – all over my house. I love them. Some are traditionally published, some are indies. There is a place for both. You can choose either.
 

Just know what you’re getting into. And have the sense and courtesy to do a professional job no matter where you go.
 
 

* And if you don’t, RUN. This is the type of thing you should be getting at a traditional press. A lot of newer authors I know are signing deals that basically make them do everything, and they end up signing away a percentage of their profits in return for someone basically submitting their files to CreateSpace. Why do that? If some “publisher” is just a glorified self-publisher and you’re going to do all the work yourself, you might as well cut them out of the loop and keep all of whatever profits there are! Read your contract, find out what they’re going to do, and hold their feet to the fire! (Back to text)

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

The Magic of Misleading

When I was a teenager, my mom used to like popping out from around corners and scaring me. I had to be super careful when I came home and the house was dark; just getting from the front door to my room was an adventure because at some point along the way, I knew she was going to get me. Sounds mean, but I actually loved it. And I still love that element of surprise in the stories I read—when I think it’s headed one direction and then, WHAM! Surprise! Something happens that I totally didn’t see coming, but when I look back, all the clues are there.
 
This kind of misdirection is magical, but like any good trick, it’s hard to pull off. There’s not a lot of information out there about how to effectively mislead the reader in a way that doesn’t make them hate you forever, but Michaelbrent’s here today with some great advice on the topic. So listen and learn, people. Listen and learn…
 
I’ve always liked magicians. Who doesn’t? For me, a kid who had trouble getting girls to even look at him, I was fascinated by any guy who could convince a girl to get dressed up in what more or less amounted to lingerie and then let him cut her in half, or throw knives at her, or stab her with a sword while she was floating in a water-tank full of sharks that had angry bees superglued to their teeth.
 
The magic was cool, too. But mostly it was the fact that the guy got his pretty assistant to do all that stuff, whereas the girls I knew probably wouldn’t call 911 if I took a bullet for them.
 
Then I realized that the girl was part of a magician’s act. That he counted on me watching her. Because while I was watching her, he was doing the magic. He was setting up the trick, he was preparing to wow me with the surprise.
 
It’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart and put to use ever since.
 

I’m a writer. I’ve written movies, numerous #1 bestselling novels, and am consistently one of Amazon’s bestselling horror writers. And one of the things I like to do most is surprise the audience. My novel The Haunted has spent almost a full year on Amazon’s bestselling Ghost Horror list, and my newest scare-fest Darkbound bowed a few weeks ago and is currently beating out folks like Joe Hill and Dean Koontz on Amazon’s Hot New Horror Releases. Partly (I hope) this is because the books are generally cool. But there’s no denying that a large part of their punch is packed into endings that catch the readers off-guard. They get to the end of the book expecting one thing… and when they get something completely different, they are not only happy, they are absolutely delighted.

So how does a writer go about doing that? How do you mislead your audience in such a way that when the final revelation comes, readers are caught flat-footed… and love you for it?
 
Well, let’s go back to magic. Remember when you were a kid and your idea of a magic trick was to hold out an object, then demand that your mom close her eyes and you would then run off and hide it? “Open your eyes,” you would say. And Mommy would clap and coo and shout with delight. But not because the magic was any good. No, it was because that kind of reaction is, I’m fairly certain, required under the U.S. Constitution. Mommies must love our tricks.
 
But non-Mommies? Strangers? Even (gasp!) readers?
 
They’re a bit tougher.
 
Readers demand a better magic show. The whole nine yards. Flaming pigeons bursting out of our sleeves, disappearing monkeys, and even – especially – those skimpy assistants.
 
Because those assistants are what makes the trick work. Great authors – like great magicians – know that the secret to misdirection isn’t withholding information, it’s giving extra information, and focusing the audience’s attention on that.
 
A pair of examples: I was recently driving to a conference where I was going to be talking authory stuff to a bunch of fans. On the way I listened to an audiobook, a suspense-thriller by a big-time writer. But I stopped listening rather abruptly when I started screaming because the author had, for the bijillionth time, said, “And then the super-spy told the other super-spy the plan. It was a cool plan, an awesome plan. And the two super-spies started doing the plan stuff, because they were super. But I, the author, won’t tell you what the plan was, because now you will be surprised when you find out. Mwahaha.” 
 
Okay, I’m probably paraphrasing. But it was pretty close.
 
Contrast that to the classic twist of recent times, The Sixth Sense. We’re so busy focusing on the ghosts, the scares, the plight of the little boy who we believe to be the protagonist, that we completely miss what was there the whole time (SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN LIVING UNDER A ROCK FOR THE LAST 15 YEARS OR SO): the fact that Bruce Willis was a ghost! Eek! But the clues were all there. The filmmaker didn’t hide them. He presented them all. He just gave us extra information, and made sure we paid attention to that instead of to the key stuff he planned on re-springing on us later.
 
As a reader, a good surprise can be one of the most gratifying experiences I have. But there’s a difference between a final revelation that ties together everything I already know and forces me to look at it in a completely new light… and a junky plot “twist” that the author throws at me out of left field with no warning whatsoever. One of them is a hoot, and makes me not only read the book again, but go around trying to get others to read it like I’ve just joined some kind of highly literary cult. The other just makes me want to hunt down the author and shake him/her until all the minutes he/she has wasted of my life are somehow tossed loose.
 
Authors are, by and large, solitary folks. We sit in our caves (we call them offices, but most of them are kind of dim and smell a bit odd, so “cave” is probably more apropros) and have only our own thoughts for company. That’s the bad news.
 
But the good news is that we can call up that attractive assistant at any time. To provide flash, dazzle, and interest. To give information we want our readers to have, so that the audience will not pay attention to the real information that will set them up for a surprise later on. Withhold everything and it’s irritating. But give a little extra, mislead properly… and it’s magic.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice