Friday, July 27, 2012

What Writers Can Learn From Actor Gary Oldman

The Dark Knight Rises
I’d like to talk about actor Gary Oldman, and what writers can learn from him. The inspiration for the post comes from the third movie in the Dark Knight trilogy: The Dark Knight Rises. I can’t wait to see the film (it opens here in South Africa this weekend!). I know it’s going to be amazing and one of the reasons is my all-time favourite actor Gary Oldman. (My sympathies go out to all the victims and their families of the shootings at the Aurora, Colorado opening.)

It may seem strange to use an actor as someone that writers can learn from, but be patient, dear readers.

Gary Leonard Oldman (born 21 March 1958) is an English screen and stage actor, filmmaker, and musician. A Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Court Theatre alumnus, Oldman’s many and varied film roles include: Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, Clive 'Bex' Bissel in The Firm, Count Dracula in Bram Stoker's Dracula and George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; as well as prominent supporting roles including Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series and James Gordon in the Dark Knight trilogy. A popular portrayer of villains, he has played the antagonist of films like True Romance, Léon: The Professional, The Fifth Element, Air Force One, and The Contender. Aside from film acting, he played an acclaimed guest role in Friends, and wrote and directed Nil by Mouth.

Oldman has garnered widespread critical and peer respect: he has been described as "the best young British actor around", and later, "one of the great actors, able to play high, low, crass, noble”; actor Tom Hardy once remarked, "Gary Oldman is, hands down, the greatest actor that's ever lived.” As an actor, he has been nominated for an Academy Award, an Emmy Award, two BAFTA Awards, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and three Saturn Awards (one win); for Nil by Mouth he won two BAFTA Awards and was nominated for the Palme d'Or. Norman Stansfield, the antagonist played by Oldman in Léon: The Professional has been named as one of cinema's greatest villains. In 2011, Oldman was voted an "Icon of Film" by Empire readers.

The highest praise comes from Oldman’s peers, film critics, and from upcoming actors. His talents have provided inspiration and influence for younger actors including Brad Pitt, Daniel Radcliffe, Tom Hardy, Ryan Gosling, Shia LaBeouf, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Jason Isaacs, and Michael Fassbender. Peers such as Anthony Hopkins, Colin Firth, Ralph Fiennes, and John Hurt have expressed their admiration of Oldman's acting talents. Prior to his first (and long overdue) Academy Award nomination for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Oldman was widely regarded as one of the greatest actors never nominated for such an award; Leigh Singer of The Guardian called him "arguably the best actor never Oscar-nominated."

Right, so by now you get it. Oldman is a brilliant actor. It took me quite a long time and many movies later to remember the name of the actor playing the above-mentioned roles. He played them so perfectly that I remembered the character, not the actor. Isn’t that how it should be?

Oldman never ‘plays the same’ in any of his roles. Chameleon-like, he fits on the skin of the character, and becomes that character in every possible way. Unlike big name stars like Tom Cruise (sorry, Tom!) and Will Smith (ditto) whose acting talents, unfortunately, have become bogged down by their glamour and fame, Oldman glides effortlessly from one persona to another.

Each time he adopts a character, he creates a unique, never-before seen persona. Even his villains have many layers and facets to make them absolutely credible.

As a writer, do you do the same?

  • Are you recycling characters because it’s easier than getting under the skin of someone new?

  • Is your feisty heroine the same as all the previous feisty heroines you’ve written or read about?

  • Is your villain the same ‘Mwahahaha!’ mustache-twirling, evil-eye-glaring villain in all your books?

  • Is your strong-jawed uber-heroic hero a carbon copy of his predecessors?

  • Do you like certain scenes/elements/conflicts so much that you dust them off, change a few things, and then throw them into the plot?
Many actors and even more writers take the easy way out. How many times have you, as a reader, stopped reading a once favourite author because their writing is starting to sound the same? I know I have. How many actors do you find rehashing their one great opus magnum role, time after time?

See? It's Tom on the poster. Can't miss him.
Let’s take Tom Cruise as the best example (sorry Tom!). He is absolutely brilliant in many ways (actor, businessman, producer, strategist), but he keeps taking on roles that show the flashy glam side, with little or no substance e.g. Mission Impossible. I remember four movies that I felt were excellent, and although I knew it was Tom Cruise, he played the roles to perfection. Born on the Fourth of July, The Last Samurai, Valkyrie, and Tropic Thunder. The fact that I did not recognise Tom Cruise as the nasty producer (Tropic Thunder) until the credits rolled will always stick in my memory. However, those are the exceptions. (Okay, confession, I still enjoy watching all the Mission Impossibles…)

But I don’t want to ‘have to’ suspend my disbelief. I want to just tumble into the story unfolding in front of me, be it on the screen or on the page.

So, once again, do you put in the extra work to get to grips with each character and create someone new and fresh? Or do you rehash the old stuff?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Back Cover Copy: Is Yours Misleading?

It seems like a strange question: is your back cover copy misleading? After all, as writers we constantly hear about the importance of back cover copy. A book's cover, inside copy (if there is any) and back cover copy are vital to hooking a reader into buying your book. Apart from word of mouth and reviews, both very subjective options, readers have no other way of deciding if they want to purchase your book or not.

So, perhaps another way of putting it could be: does your book live up to the back cover copy?

I was inspired to ponder upon this question after I read False Impression by Jeffrey Archer. The author is not my first choice when it comes to books. However, he is a skilled and accomplished storyteller, as his multimillion-dollar sales attest. Who can forget Kane and Abel? I took the book out the library for my Aged P, an avid Archer fan. If Mr. Archer rewrote the telephone directory, Mom would read it. Oh, if only we all had such devoted fans. But, back to the book. I read the back cover blurb below:

Why was an elegant lady brutally murdered the night before 9/11?
Why was a successful New York banker not surprised to receive a woman’s left ear in the morning mail?
Why did a top Manhattan lawyer work only for one client, but never charge a fee?
Why did a young woman with a bright career steal a priceless Van Gogh painting?
 Why was an Olympic gymnast paid a million dollars an assignment when she didn’t have a bank account?
Why was an honors graduate working as a temporary secretary after inheriting a fortune?
Why was an English Countess ready to kill the banker, the lawyer, and the gymnast even if it meant spending the rest of her life in jail?
Why was a Japanese steel magnate happy to hand over $50,000,000 to a woman he had only met once?
Why was a senior FBI agent trying to work out the connection between these eight apparently innocent individuals?
All these questions are answered in Jeffrey Archer’s latest novel, False Impression, but not before a breathtaking journey of twists and turns that will take readers from New York to London to Bucharest and on to Tokyo, and finally a sleepy English village, where the mystery of Van Gogh’s last painting will finally be resolved. And only then will readers discover that Van Gogh’s Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear has a secret of its own that acts as the final twist in this unforgettable yarn.

It sounds utterly incredible, doesn’t it? The world’s biggest disaster bar the sinking of the Titanic; the murky world of double-dealing in priceless art; an unscrupulous banker; an innocent art expert who is wrongly accused; an assassin with a penchant for kitchen knives… I could go on and on. This book has all the ingredients of a great thriller, plus some extra art info on the side and a cleverly punned title. I read the book. I couldn’t help myself, after such enticing back cover copy!

So, why was I disappointed? Because the book did not live up to the exciting menu on the back cover copy. Did the author or publisher mislead me? No, all those things took place. Were all the loose ends tied up? Absolutely. So…?

Having been promised a fast-paced thriller, with great characters, I was disappointed because I received a plodding and formulaic conspiracy-meets-art-theft storyline, with characters that are mere cardboard cutouts of what they could have been. While not exactly airport cannon fodder, False Impression veers alarmingly close to that category. I would rate it a three-star read.

Another example is The Malice Box, by Martin Langfield. I read the back cover copy, was entranced by the glittering, embossed cover, and found myself deeply disappointed by a muddled story that began with a thrilling bang, and ended with a mystical whimper. I would rate it three stars.

Publisher’s Weekly had this to say: Owing an obvious debt to Dan Brown's mega blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, Langfield's ambitious debut incorporates elements of supernatural mystery, Dante-esque journey and apocalyptic thriller, but the pieces fail to come together into a satisfying whole. With a powerful alchemical weapon primed to detonate in a week's time, Robert Reckliss must unlock seven puzzles and find seven keys hidden around Manhattan before the Malice Box unleashes some unspecified evil on the inhabitants of New York City. Standing in his way is the Brotherhood of Iwnw (pronounced yoonu), otherworldly scavengers of the soul bent on remaking civilization with themselves as overlords. Two-dimensional characters, contrived situations and a mishmash of plot-threads—a potentially world-altering discovery involving a recovered document written by Isaac Newton, secret societies, gateways between worlds, America's war against terrorism, Christian and Islamic mysticism, ley lines—make this one of the weaker contenders in the crowded religious thriller field. (taken from the Amazon book page)

The bottom line is this: are you giving readers the wrong impression of your book’s content? Is your story what you say and think it is? Ponder upon the potential response from a reader, not how you want to appear as a writer. I am both an avid reader and a writer. I love books. I feel disappointment like a blow when a book does not give me what it promises. Are Jeffrey Archer and Martin Langfield bad writers? No, they are excellent, possibly brilliant writers, but the books did not deliver what they promised.

Let’s clarify that sentence: to me. Both books have reviews ranging from five to one stars. The writers are published by top publishers (St Martin’s Press and Pegasus). They know what they are doing, but these two books don’t deliver on the promise.

Look at your back cover copy.

Is your plot thrilling? Check.

Are your characters real and convincing? Check.

Is your storyline compelling? Check.

Do you think your reader will be disappointed because the book ends, or at the end of the book?

Um … check?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Make Amazon Do Your Marketing!

I have to blog about a gem of a book I reviewed recently: Aggie Villanueva’s Amazon Categories Create Bestsellers. Not only did the book open my eyes as to how Amazon works, their review policies, and their sometimes draconian behaviour patterns, it also educated me regarding the way Amazon is structured. Learn how Amazon ticks, and you’ll have greater control over how your book is presented to the mass of readers  out there who could be buying your book, if only you can get them to see it. This book teaches you how to put Amazon to good use.

Understanding Amazon
Any author who wants to see their book up there in Amazon’s shop front needs to understand Amazon. Aggie Villanueva demystifies the giant in the sky. Far from being just a books-and-more store, Amazon has built-in marketing strategies that arise naturally from their own unique construction. Blessed be the author who manages to work out this for himself.

Get this book and implement the simple steps outlined to achieve marketing/sales success. Don’t think the length of the book (78 pages) means you won’t get the information you need. It is packed with tips! I spent time reading it to make sure I understood the strategies outlined, and then I went onto my own book page on Amazon and implemented them. What a shock to see how much your publisher does NOT do for you!

Tight Targeting Gets Your Book Places
Villaneuva dismantles the nuts and bolts of Amazon, and suggests that simply by tapping into the seemingly insignificant areas such as categories, tags, reviews and discussion groups, an incredible marketing machine starts working for the book. Why spend money on a marketing plan when merely making sure your book is properly categorized will reap rich rewards.

Here's the secret weapon: Correct category listings can catapult a book into bestseller lists. Nearly every Top-100 list is drawn from categories. Get that right (you can do it yourself) and your book will fly. You can then get into other Top-100 lists.

My children's adventure novel The Secret of the Sacred Scarab has been placed in two categories:

  • Books; Children's Books; Action & Adventure
  • Books; Children's Books; Science Fiction & Fantasy; Fantasy & Magic
I thought hard about this and then decided there wasn't any other category I could think of that was applicable.

The Amazon Helpdesk (and they are helpful!) had this to say about having more ctaegories: "Some books have more than two browsing categories because the categories have been updated automatically through data feeds provided by the book's publishers."

Don't Ignore the Benefits
Many authors prefer to use other or their own sites as selling points because they earn more on each book sale. However, it’s hard to ignore the benefits of the world’s largest store and publicity machine. Amazon’s automated system is simple but multilayered.

Books correctly listed will then benefit from free and automatic publicity that reaches millions of readers every day. Using Amazon Central, an author can also monitor and track a book’s performance in these different categories.

Hidden Extras
This book is also a treasure trove when it comes to hidden extras. The pages are sprinkled with links to other marketing videos or supplementary material, all designed to help you get your book from Amazon to a slew of readers. The writing is clear, and understandable to even the most technologically challenged writer (like me!) Screen grabs also point you in the right direction.

But Wait, There’s More!
More? Is this possible? Absolutely. If you follow Villaneuva’s careful step-by-step suggestions, you’ll end up in your Author Central Dashboard (a vital tool!) on Amazon where … tada! … you’ll find that linking back to your Amazon book details are your Shelfari book details. If you have a Shelfari account and wondered why recently you were asked if you wanted to log in via your Amazon account, this is why.

Shelfari is sometimes regarded as the ‘poor cousin’ of the triumvirate, with swanky Librarything leading the pack, and good solid Goodreads (which gets lots of publicity) following a close second. Not so. Shelfari enables you to load a huge amount of book detail on your own books such as: characters, locations, descriptions, quotes, awards, synopses, similar books etc. If you fill your Shelfari book details to the hilt, you’ll find many of these extras appearing in your Book Extras on Amazon.

Take advantage of every possible marketing angle that you’ll find in this book and the extras that add on, perhaps giving you the advantage over your competitors. There are many thousands of books published annually worldwide. Make sure you have an edge!

Amazon Categories Create Bestsellers is an essential guide. Highly recommended.

For more marketing advice, visit Promotion a La Carte. From tours to simple tips 'n' tricks, there’s something there for every author!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Magic of White Space

Have you ever wondered why some books are such a mission to read, and others ...well, you literally fly through the story, swept along by a great plot and gripping elements. The answer is quite simple and who better to explain why than Randy Ingermanson, who offers loads of simple writing advice.

Creating White Space Magic

One of the most common mistakes I see when I critique manuscripts is that the paragraphs are too long. When I see a dense page of text that has only three or four paragraphs, I suspect the pace is going to be slow and the writing is going to be boring. When I see a page with a lot of white space, I suspect the pace is going to be fast and the writing is going to have a lot of conflict.

Part of this is just a psychological illusion.

When someone is reading a scene with a lot of white space, their eyes zip rapidly down the page.

Before they know it, they're  flipping the page, and then the next, and the next.

White space makes your reader feel like they're flying.

As I said, this is a psychological trick, and by itself it doesn't mean very much. Pace is about more than reading pages rapidly. Pace is about the amount of conflict coming at the reader on each page.

Fiction thrives on conflict.

Don't confuse conflict with mere physical action. Conflict is about trading punches, but most often those punches are verbal or psychological, not physical.

Conflict is a lawyer cross-examining a lying witness. Conflict is a woman trying to get her man to tell her what he's really feeling. Conflict is a baseball player stepping up to the plate with the tying run on third and facing the league's toughest pitcher in the final inning of the World Series.

Conflict is about back-and-forth.

You get the least conflict per page when you use a lot of description, narrative summary, and exposition. All of these tend to use long paragraphs that focus on a single thing.

You get the most conflict per page when you have a lot of action and dialogue and when you alternate rapidly between characters. Doing that will naturally give you a lot of short, punchy paragraphs.

The more paragraphs you have, the more white space on the page.

This isn't complicated, so I'm not going to belabor it. White space is magic, not because it CAUSES good writing but because it's an EFFECT of good writing.

If you've got a scene that your critiques are telling you is slow and boring, take a look at how much white space you've got. You probably need more.

Look for every paragraph longer than five lines. Can you break it up? It probably has some description or long explanation or something else that you're certain your reader can't live without. Kill it. Get rid of it. Be a brute.

Here is where you protest that you can't do that—your reader will hate you forever for cutting out that long horrible explanation about the history of mildew. Fine, if it's that important, then cut it down to three lines. But you know in your lying little heart that it's not that important. It may be that the paragraph has no description or explanation at all. In fact, you may believe it's packed with action. The tiger and the vampire are locked in a wrestling match to the death. But if that paragraph is longer than five lines, you're probably using narrative summary. You're telling your reader about the fight, rather than showing the fight.

If a fight is worth having in your story, it's worth showing, punch by punch, snarl by snarl, bite by bite. Break up that long paragraph into a sequence of actions and reactions. One paragraph for the vampire, one for the tiger, back and forth, until you have a victor. When you do that, you'll naturally produce a lot of white space. Your eyes will tell you when you've done enough.

It's possible to go too far, of course. You don't want to have an entire novel of one-line paragraphs. White space is wonderful, but there can be too much of a good thing. I've seen two writers who used too much white space. Oddly enough, both of them are best-selling authors. I've never seen a bad writer use too much white space.

If too much white space is your problem, there's an easy fix for it. Just add in some interior monologue, some sensory description, and even an occasional bit of exposition to fatten up a few paragraphs.

White space is magic. White space is power. You know the drill. Great power, great responsibility.

Use it well.

This article is reprinted by permission of the author. Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 31,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit his site. Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.