Back When I Was An Ebook Germ

 

HeavyLoad

Many long grueling years ago, I was invited to give a presentation on ebooks at the University of New Brunswick’s prestigious Maritime Writers Workshop. The presentation was held in a large theater with tall stained glass windows before an audience of students, instructors, professors and anyone interested in literature. The room was packed.

I stood before the audience and talked about how ebooks were the coming wave in publishing…how they cut distribution and production costs, put more control in the hands of authors, lowered the cost of books….you know, the things we take for granted today. Pretty much the entire audience seemed enthralled by this concept, especially the aspiring writers.

I seem to recall one of the professors showing some interest, but the others stared at me like I was a stalagmite of bacteria sprouting out of the floor. One of them seemed offended that I was talking this sacrilegious nonsense on the last day of the venerable workshop, poisoning the minds of promising writers and despoiling the honorable repetition of Canada’s longest running literary workshop.

To be fair, the early days of ebooks were a chaotic scramble. Try to imagine a bumper car ride filled with drunken drivers on meth. This was before Kindle, Kobo and Nook. The standard methods of delivery were the PDF file, the floppy disk and the CD-ROM. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that Stephen King serialized a novel delivered on the Glass reader, a piece of software that, thank God, drowned in the advances made by other ereaders. The Rocket Ebook and Softbook suffered the same fate.

Writers who’d been turned down by every publisher on the planet because they couldn’t write a complete paragraph without insulting the rules of grammar and showed their dismal lack of storytelling ability were paying hundreds of dollars to have their books published electronically by scam companies proliferating across the literary horizon. Fortunately, few of these writers knew anything about marketing and most of the scammers offered marketing services that the writers couldn’t afford.

On the other hand, there were those who embraced the new technology with enthusiasm and the belief that epublishing was just as important as the advent of the printing press.

But…back to the workshop. I received a generous round of applause from most of the audience, but lukewarm from that area where the profs looked at me like I was something awful and hopefully not contagious.

After the presentation, I did some mingling, answered a few questions and was just about to leave when one of the profs approached me and said, “So you really believe that these things are actually books?”

Before I could answer, he went on to say that ebooks were a passing fad and that serious writers and publishers would never accept them, as though any book in ebook format was automatically not good writing. So I asked him if The Sun Also Rises (which I’d just read for the second time) were to be published in as an ebook, would it still be a great novel? He gave me that bacteria look, scowled and just walked away.

I’m not sure how he feels about ebooks today, but I do know that The Sun Also Rises is available in ebook format and it’s still a great book. In fact, I might just read it again on my Kindle.

I think the discrepancy in thinking here is confusion between content and format. Granted, the early days of ebooks were iffy on some fronts, but what we’re really talking about is the writing itself. Good writing is good writing whether in print or digitized. Bad writing is bad writing whether in print or digitized.

Our attitudes have come a long way since then, given that we’ve become more of a “content-based” society willing to accept alternate presentation methods as long as the content is good, but I still come across people who look at me like I’m a germ when I pull out my Kindle in a waiting room or plane. I’m tempted to look across the room or aisle and say, “It’s The Sun Also Rises. Have you read it?”

WARNING: I read both ebooks and print books…ebooks early in the day and print books before bed. The reason? Screens emit blue light, which inhibits the production of sleep-inducing melatonin and puts your brain on alert status. So treat your ereader like coffee in the evening.

(Shown above is the cover for my first novel…cover artists Brock Parks and Paul McNeil. It was first published by a law firm in California in PDF format and then by Jacobyte Books in Australia in print-on-demand and CD-ROM formats.)

Active Story Research: Making It Real by Doing It Real

I was sitting in a coffee shop one night working furiously on a short story for one of the Twisted Tails anthologies (The editor, J, had mentioned that, if I didn’t have the story to him pronto, bad things would start happening to me.) when I felt someone nudge my shoulder. I quickly grabbed my Saint Christopher’s cross to ward off evil editors before turning to see who it was. It wasn’t J.

It was a pimply faced middle aged wide eyed short paunchy balding man wearing the ugliest sweater I’ve ever seen. I won’t spoil your appetite by describing the sweater. He asked if I were Biff Mitchell. I said no, but he just ignored me and waved two crumpled sheets of paper in my face.

“I need you to tell me what’s wrong with this.” He sounded pissed off and disappointed at the same time. I thought for a moment on whether or not I should take the paper out of his hand and shove it up his nose, but I don’t do things like that anymore, so I took the sheets and looked at them.

“There’s something wrong, but I don’t know what it is.” His eyes looked like they were almost ready to burst into tears. “Ashley, my sister, read it and laughed.” I think he called her a fucking bitch, but I’m not going to use that kind of language here. I told him to calm down and I started reading. He moved to the empty chair on the other side of the table as though he was going to sit, but I told not to sit down, that it would ruin my focus. I read the first page.

Surprisingly, the writing wasn’t bad. In fact, it was good enough that I continued reading into the second page. And that’s when I almost started to laugh.

He described the cockpit of a Formula 1 racing car going full out as smooth as a bar of soap sliding across ice. Now, I’m not going to get into a critique of the imagery, but I will take issue with the description itself. I’ve never driven a Formula 1 racer myself, but I once saw a video clip of the inside of one going full out…and it was anything but smooth. In fact, it was bumpy as hell and it seemed to me to be a miracle that any car could hold together under that kind of stress. Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve had my Accent up to 100 miles an hour and it was plenty shaky.

His sister obviously saw the same video clip. In his case, a simple search through YouTube might have given him a little more insight, but, obviously, he just used his imagination and figured that a car built for those speeds would probably drive smoothly at those speeds. His research obviously sucked.

Good research is one of the key ingredients in a well-written novel. Lack of it shows, not just in terms of inaccuracies, but in terms of convincing descriptions of settings, procedures, operations, cultures and everyday rituals…just to name a few aspects of convincing fictional world-building.

Sometimes, it’s not enough to scour the web for information, or even to read books. Sometimes you have to get up off your ass and do things. I know this because I’ve done it.

Heavy Load

In my first novel, Heavy Load (a laundromance) I got up off my ass and plopped it down in a laundromat pretty much every evening and a few weekend days for about a month. I took a notebook with me and recorded every sensation I could imagine as I sat on hard plastic chairs, leaned against washers and dryers and strolled around the laundromat examining everything in minute detail. I noticed lint balls in corners, gum under the folding tables, pint bottles of vodka and rum in the trash cans. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of buttons clicking in the dryers, water gushing into the washers. I felt the rumble of machines and noted the smell of detergents and clothes. I watched a woman reach orgasm with her thighs pressed against a washer. I noticed there wasn’t a lot of conversation, even between couples and friends on a night out to restore their wardrobes to wearable condition.

I studied the people in the laundromat, the students, single mothers with kids attached, elderly couples, middle aged career men and women and a strange array of people who, like me, seemed to be there for more than just the suds and duds. Some people actually go to the laundromat to meet people, chill out or just read. There were three people who frequented the place to read books. Never saw any of them show up with laundry. Just books.

I drew maps at the laundromat, recording the movements and paths of my characters as they moved through the fictional laundromat in my novel. I drew on the regulars for minor characters and incidents in the novel. For that month I steeped myself so deeply in that laundromat that I dreamed about it. At work, I could close my eyes and read the signs on the walls and hear the tick tick tick of small buttons in the dryers. I could smell the bleach.

I didn’t use all the material from that month, but it’s like gold mining: you collect a few billion pounds muck and harvest an ounce of gold. If you’re lucky. In the end, I had all the material I needed to make the laundromat in my novel real and I had enough character studies to populate my laundromat with real people.

Active research can take you in new directions, add substance to your writing and give you new ideas.

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For instance, my last novel, The Reality Wars, was set 2000 years in the future and the central action took place in what I initially envisioned as a futuristic triathlon. So, after six weeks of training, and one month after my 58th birthday, I participated in an Olympic level triathlon: 1.5 kilometer swim, 40 kilometer bike ride, 10 kilometer run. I survived, but just barely. Best of all, I finished, but just barely.

There was a particular character I wanted but couldn’t quite see in my mind. I had a vague picture of someone sleek, muscular and blue, with a sleek blue helmet. Or maybe someone dressed in black. But I knew it was someone bad. Evil. Nasty. Someone out to not just beat the protagonist, but out to do her harm. As I trained for the triathlon, I started to get a more complete image of this evil someone. Suddenly, one day when I was being chased around Killarney Lake by the biggest horse fly in the world (did my best running time ever that day), the evil one came to me. She was a woman and she had red eyes. She was running right beside me as I ran from that damned horse fly.

Other things came to me as well. Things like events that might constitute a triathlon 2000 years in the future. In fact, I pretty much scrapped the idea of a triathlon and opted for a series of deadly games played in the real world and in cyberspace.

None of this would have come to me if I hadn’t put myself into the situation I started writing about. I probably would have kept with the idea of a standard swim/bike/run triathlon and not even thought of the much more interesting series of games that were to be called The Reality Wars. And I would never have had one of the novel’s most compelling characters, the beautiful but evil Loac.

Oh…BTW…below is a picture of me finishing the triathlon…alive. Sort of. Proof positive that anyone can be a lunatic.

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I wrote a novella called Ladies of the Fountain that was published in Twisted Tails VII: Irreverence.

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In the story, three sculpted women holding up a fountain in a park area come to life and spread havoc through a small city after a very lonely man wishes for them to come to life and be his women. The fountain actually exists in Freddie Beach, where the story is set.

One Saturday morning, I walked to the fountain, looked around, made notes and took pictures. Then, I walked down the street, making notes and taking pictures of all the spots where things were going to happen in the novella.

When I started the actual writing, I had my notes (which included descriptions of smells, sounds and impressions) and a few dozen photographs to draw on as I wrote. In effect, I had almost lived the story before writing it.

And now things get a little weird.

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I plotted a series of murders in coffee shops throughout the downtown core of Freddie Beach. These were for a novella called Boston Jonson in Murder by Coffee.

There were three coffee shops and one coffee house. (There’s a difference. Just ask Molly.) I sat in the exact locations where the victims were found and then in the locations where the witnesses were seated. While I was sitting in the victims’ seats, I closed my eyes and tried to visualize what it would be like to have just been murdered. I tried to visualize what it must have been like for each of the victims in those few seconds before they died, knowing that they were just about to die. I tried to get into their heads in those few seconds after they died, you know, those seconds where the recently deceased’s soul hovers over their former body and wonders, “WTF?”

I put myself in their heads that morning when they were getting ready for work, not knowing that this would be the last time they would ever get ready for work, that this would be their last day on earth. And, of course, I made notes.

Unfortunately, I didn’t use any of this material. All that weirdness for nothing. Well, not completely nothing; everything you do to get into any part of a story you’re about to write puts you just that much closer to the story and to making everything in it real.

Now, the locations where the witnesses sat were much more productive. None of them actually witnessed the murders taking place (or, at least, they weren’t aware of the murders happening) but they saw the victims in their last moments. Some of them saw the victims at other times and were able to give the sleuth, Boston Jonson, information for his investigation. I imagined seeing the victims and how I felt about them. I put myself in their shoes as they were being questioned. I answered the questions, either truthfully or not truthfully. I became the witnesses and, as I did, I came up with ideas about how the murders were committed and who might have been behind them (something I didn’t have a clue about until I was well into the story). And, of course, I made notes.

I know this seems like a lot of trouble to go through just to write a novel. I mean, it’s not exactly the ideal of sitting in a coffee shop with your laptop and spewing out sentence after sentence of brilliant prose, all of it culminating in a novel that will knock the socks off the entire literary world and have movie producers pounding at your door. But, it just might lead you into a few brilliant sentences that’ll knock your own socks off.

The Six Characteristics of a Laundromance

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A friend recently signed out a copy of my first novel, Heavy Load (a laundromance), from the library and asked me if “laundromance” is just a catchy word I introduced to sell lots more copies of the book. I assured him that nothing in Creation would help me to sell lots more copies of the book, and that the book has six characteristics that make a laundromance, these being:

  • A laundromance depicts everyday, common life. The stains on your laundry are out  in the open in the laundromat. And, let’s face it…doing your laundry is one of life’s mundane rituals that can’t be escaped unless you can afford to have your laundry done by someone else, or you’re 35 and still living at home.
  • It must be narrated by the laundromat. Yep, the laundromat is sentient and can go into the minds and bodies of its customers where it visits their pasts through a liver or dimple, or goes into their brains to see what’s happening in the present. Got this idea from a book called Focusing by Eugene T. Gendlin. 
  • There must be a least one laundry tip. I visited the Tide site repeatedly while I was researching for the book. I also found tips on dozens of other sites, and I asked for tips from the folks running the Paragon Laundromat in Fredericton for tips. They had a lot of tips. For instance, you never throw your clothing and soap and bleach in right off. Especially the bleach. Let the machine fill up with some water, then add soap and bleach and let it mix before putting the clothes in.
  • There must be an element of real or potential romance. I mean…it’s a laundromance.
  • None of the romantically involved characters are allowed to speak to each other. In Heavy Load, none of the three main characters involved in a three-way relationship on a Saturday morning speak to each other at any point in the story. But in the end, love blooms. Or…potentially blooms.
  • Always, the main theme is: Things get dirty, things get clean. After all, a laundromat is a place of regeneration. After a visit there, you suddenly have a whole new wardrobe, a regenerated wardrobe.

 My friend nodded knowingly and walked away without comment, obviously impressed with my deep-seated understanding of humanity and its relation to dirty clothes.

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