Monday, February 20, 2017

Story Trumps Structure with Steven James, Award-Winning Author


Today I’d like to welcome Steven James, the author of the award-winning book STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE. He is also the author of the thriller EVERY CROOKED PATH. I asked him 5 questions about writing organically, how to build tension, and more. Welcome, Steven!

Get it on AMAZON


1. Why should writers worry more about story and less about structure?

Often, structure gets in the way of excellence. As soon as you sit down to write three or four acts, or whatever it might be, you’re using an easily-identified paradigm and could end up with a cookie-cutter story. Instead, focus on pursuit, desire, believability, escalation, and so on. All of the narrative forces that help shape a story, regardless of its length or structure. 

2. For writers who struggle to write organically, without an outline, what piece of advice can you give them?

Ask yourself four questions, and you will never be without the next moment of your story. First, what would this character naturally do? Then have him or her do it always. Allow them to act in character and to act believably. Second, how can I make things worse? This relates to the narrative force of escalation and allows the story to continue to build toward a climax. Third, how can I add a twist? Look for a way to end the scene in a manner that is unexpected an inevitable. Fourth, what promises have I made that I have not yet kept? Then look for a way to keep them. 

3. What is one writing rule that you hear all the time that you believe should be broken?

Plot out your story before you write it. This ends up forcing so many stories into a corner and into predictable patterns. Allow the story to emerge as you work on it, asking the questions that I just went through, and the story will have a vibrancy that you never realized before that it could have.  

4. Which elements should writers focus on to create engaging stories?

Write stories that have emotional resonance by looking for struggles that your character has that readers will be able to identify with. Keep everything believable and don’t confuse your readers. Confusion will end up trumping any other reader response. For example, if you want them to be in suspense but they’re confused, they won’t be in suspense. If you’re trying to build romantic tension and they’re confused by what’s going on, they won’t be engaged. 

5. What is one thing a writer can do to build tension in a story?

Allow readers to be aware of danger that the character within the story is not aware of. For instance, readers know that there’s a bomb in the car that will ignite when a key is placed in the ignition. Then, readers will worry as the character approaches the car, unlocks it, and positions himself in the driver’s seat. No matter what genre you write in, building tension and suspense will help with reader engagement. 


BIO:
Steven James is a national bestselling novelist whose award-winning, pulse-pounding thrillers continue to gain wide critical acclaim and a growing fan base.

Suspense Magazine, who named Steven’s book THE BISHOP their Book of the Year, says that he “sets the new standard in suspense writing.” Publishers Weekly calls him a “master storyteller at the peak of his game.” And RT Book Reviews promises, “the nail-biting suspense will rivet you.”

Equipped with a unique Master’s Degree in Storytelling, Steven has taught writing and storytelling on four continents over the past two decades, speaking more than two thousand times at events spanning the globe. In his podcast “The Story Blender,” he interviews leading storytellers in film, print, and web. Listen now to any of the dozens of archived podcasts for free by visiting his website www.thestoryblender.com.

Steven’s groundbreaking book on the art of fiction writing, STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE, won a Storytelling World award. Widely-recognized for his story crafting expertise, he has twice served as a Master CraftFest instructor at ThrillerFest, North America’s premier training event for suspense writers. 

Find Steven:


Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, Steven. We are thrilled to have you as a guest. :)


QUESTION: Do you write with or without an outline?


Monday, February 13, 2017

Tips to Create Book Covers that Sell Books

With the changes to the publishing industry in recent years, more and more authors are choosing to self-publish. Unfortunately this has also resulted in a high percentage of those authors attempting to save costs by slapping on a quick DIY cover, without knowing what it takes to make a good cover. Remember, the cover is the first impression you give potential readers. Make sure it’s a good one by giving your book the best chance for success. Below are some tips that might help.

Keep the design simple. What you leave out is just as important as what you put in. Don’t add extra text. If you start throwing in too much, the eye doesn’t know what to focus on and the cover becomes an unprofessional mess. Unless you've built a huge fan base over a number of books, make sure the title is bigger than your name. In the interest of keeping it simple, avoid the special effects on the image and the fonts. Just because your graphics program has these funky filters, doesn't mean you should use them. This includes bevels, lens flares, distortions, and so forth.

An example of a good design and a bad design

Research cover trends. Does the trend lean toward photos or illustration for your market? Does it lean toward images of people or objects? These trends can change over time, so if you think you know, then double-check anyway. This is not to say you have to copy what's out there, but it is to say you want the genre of your book to be easily recognizable. The cover must communicate the book's genre.

The power of fonts:
The choice of font is as important, if not more so, as the images you choose for your covers. Don’t use too many different fonts on your cover. It will look messy otherwise. Use easy-to-read fonts. This might sound obvious, but I’ve seen so many authors choose a font because they like it, not because it’s readable. And if the font itself is readable, make sure there's a strong contrast between the font color and the background it's on. Do your research and make sure the font fits the genre of your book too. Below I’ve put together three different examples of font usage without an image behind them. Through the font treatment and style, it’s easy to work out what genres the covers fit into.

Another point on readability: Don't be afraid to break up a long title onto a couple of lines. One long title across the book's width often means being forced to make the title too small. Look for balance in the design. Below is an example:
Important: keep in mind the copyright on your fonts. Not all fonts are free, and this includes many of the freeware fonts. Often they are only free for personal use. If you plan to make money from the use of fonts through the sale of books, then that is a commercial venture and no longer falls under the rights of most freeware. Microsoft fonts are not free for commercial use. Always check the license of every font you use. The same goes for any images you use. Remember: You can't use anything you happen to come across.

The power of the images:
When choosing an image, or multiple images for your work, there are many factors you should keep in mind. Don’t go with fussy imagery, or pictures with many different colors. Too many colors become distracting. The eye won’t know where to focus and the title, and entire cover, will become lost. A simple image can speak a thousand words and will stand out far better than an intricate one. If you want to use multiple images, make sure you know how to blend them first. If you don’t then avoid this. If the chosen image is too busy to allow your title to stand out, then create a block space behind the title to tone the busyness down. See the sample below:
Understand how colors work.  There is a whole psychology behind colors. That's why you'll often see gloomy images and stark red or white titles on horror fiction, and you'll see muted, soft colors on historical romances. There is a plethora of websites that offer in-depth information on this. It's worth doing some research.

It's also important to understand how colors work together. If you've chosen an image that's predominantly blue, then it's not wise to use blue text as well, even if it's a different blue. Complimentary colors offer great contrasts while working well together. Looking at the color wheel below, the colors that sit opposite each other on the wheel are the complimentary colors.
How to check if your cover stands out: Turn your cover into the size of a thumbnail. This is often the size potential readers will see first when they browse Amazon for a new book. Is it still recognizable at that size? Does it still stand out when it’s small? To double check, a great trick is to take a screenshot of the Amazon page with books in your genre, then paste the cover of your book in among them. It’s the fastest way to see if it stands out from the crowd. I did this with Cling to God, my devotional book that was recently released. While the final of my cover was done professionally by my publisher, I still wanted to see for myself if it stood out. And it definitely did!
And lastly, design the cover in a high resolution—300dpi is preferable for a sharp image in print. It's then easy to scale back for web images (72dpi).

Which are your favorite book covers? What are your thoughts on do-it-yourself covers? What has your experience been with covers?

Monday, February 6, 2017

Emmy and Golden Globe Winning Screenwriter Erik Bork

Today we have the honor of welcoming an award winning screenwriter, Erik Bork!

You’re an Emmy and Golden Globe winning screenwriter. What is the biggest challenge when it comes to writing a screenplay?

Coming up with an idea for a script (or series) that really works, that’s original,compelling and capable of impressing people in the industry and making them want to put money behind it.

What ran through your mind when you realized you would be working with Tom Hanks on From the Earth to the Moon? What advice would you give writers for handling a big break like that?

Excitement mixed with terror that I might blow this opportunity, and insecurity about trying to write in a very different medium than I’d attempted before (historical drama/true story). Tom actually promoted me from an assistant position to work on this project, which was a life-changing break for me, that I am forever grateful for. I guess the advice I would give writers (or those who haven’t gotten such a break yet) would be to keep your head down, strive to be of value with what you do for others, to learn and improve at your craft, and try to keep your ego and ambitions in check when you deal with others.

You’ve talked about Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. (A favorite of mine!) What elements/items/technique do you think is the most important when writing a screenplay?

I particularly love his ten “genres”: they’re my favorite tool for evaluating and developing movie ideas at the crucial concept/logline stage. I think really working within one of those genres (which requires understanding them more than most casual readers of the book do) can help ensure that one’s ideas are viable. It’s very easy to write something that doesn’t have the power to compel millions of people to want to emotionally engage with it — and not easy to come up with something that does.

You do consultations and coaching – what is the most rewarding thing about working with writers and the most frustrating?

The most rewarding thing is when I come up with ideas or insights that a writer really appreciates and can run with, and when I see them improve in their craft and know that they have improved, in part due to my assistance.

I suppose the most frustrating thing is when they don’t seem to make any progress or don’t seem to be able to successfully process feedback from myself or others, and move forward with it.

When you began this crazy writing journey, is this where you thought the path would lead? What else do you hope to accomplish?

All of the specifics of what I’ve experienced have been unexpected (both for good and bad). I certainly hoped I’d be able to write professionally, and I have achieved that. But there is much I haven’t done that I’ve long wanted to do, especially to initiate original projects and see them through to success with audiences. That might mean writing and directing on an independent basis, which is what I’m focused on at the moment. (I’m currently in post on a short film I wrote and directed.)


I’m a screenwriter best known for my work on the HBO miniseries BAND OF BROTHERS and FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, for which I wrote multiple episodes, and won two Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards as part of the producing team.
I’ve also sold series pitches (and written pilots) at NBC and FOX, worked on the writing staff for two primetime dramas, and written feature screenplays on assignment for companies like Universal, HBO, TNT, and Playtone.
I teach screenwriting for UCLA Extension, National University and The Writers Store, and offer one-on-one consulting to writers.
I got my start as an assistant to Tom Hanks, who gave me the opportunity to help him write and produce FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, after reading some sitcom spec scripts I had written.
I’m currently represented by Creative Artists Agency.

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