Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The hard road to self-publishing: Is it for you?

There is a well-known Greek aphorism that goes a little something like this: “Know Thyself.” And if there is anything that an aspiring self-publishing author should know, it is exactly that. At a first glance, self-publishing appears simple. One could easily take a few pages from a Microsoft Word document and throw it up on Amazon within 48 hours. But this doesn’t mean sales will follow.

All best-selling books have a bit of luck attached to their origin story (unless, of course, you already have an 
established fan base such as James Patterson), but the rest of one’s success relies solely on the information an author’s provides to the reading public. This requires a massive amount of time, energy, and expertise that often takes the author away from his or her writing. Expertise that many publishing companies have already figured out.

For example, knowing the search engine optimization words (or SEO) for a book could be the difference between being seen by hundreds or thousands. Selecting a category for your book might seem simple at first, but how many self-publishing authors know about the little details of that particular category? Is it a niche category that brings few readers? Is the category so popular that your book will be lost in the white noise? Is your book truly a self-help or could it be more akin to an inspirational? Do you know your readers’ mindset? Are they the type of readers that focus on the quality of your advice (the content), or the fact that you missed a comma in the fifth sentence of your prologue? These are just a few matters that have to be taken very seriously.

Self-publishing also requires a critical and excruciating look at your own work, forcing the author to be as objective as possible in order to stand out from the crowd. This is a very dangerous situation as authors usually only get one chance to make a great first impression to the public. Family and friends are encouraging, but no true success comes without the support of strangers. And in order to impress strangers, the work has to be more than just a great piece that you poured your heart and soul into. It has to be immaculately edited, given a fantastic book cover, a tantalizing synopsis, the proper categories, great SEO, it has to be priced correctly, promoted well and most of all, given your undivided attention.
This requires hard decisions to be made, including being able to scrap a project completely if need be, no matter how precious and dear it is to you, and especially if your goal is to garner as many readers as possible.

You must know yourself. You must be honest, and ask yourself if you have the time, discipline and determination to accomplish your goal, even if it requires decades to achieve. Establishing your platform as a self-published author is the equivalent of raising a child. It’s that extensive.

Though publishing houses take a royalty and may charge for their services, the fact of the matter is that they have already done the research and legwork required to give a work of literature the best chance it can receive in an already convoluted market. From a first glance, they can take a look at your work and immediately give an assessment of its potential and marketability.

In order for a self-published author to achieve the same level of expertise, they will have to put in research hours equivalent to that of a full-time job. Considering that most authors cannot afford to write full-time, the best option for many is to reach out to a publishing house or agent for help—to both make their book a success, and to relieve the burden of the business. This is not to say that an author cannot make it in self-publishing. They certainly can. They just have to grasp the magnitude of such a decision and understand their limitations.

As more and more authors self-publish, it is getting harder to make a name for yourself in an already saturated market. In order to rise above the tide, there has to be something that gives authors an edge. And so far, the only available paths to success are these: an unwavering dedication to all aspects of the business (not just writing), or finding a publishing house that can meet all of your needs.

Know Thyself, and Choose Wisely.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Knowing Your Audience (What American Remakes can teach you about writing)

One of the questions that every writer should ask themselves is: “Who am I writing for?” The answer to this question may change depending on whether it is fiction or nonfiction, the genre in which the work falls, and how much research was performed on the subject. But the author must know their audience, otherwise the story will be lost in translation.

There are not that many people in America who read novels in both English and other languages. However, most of them have seen movies that originated from other countries. These movies are called, “American Remakes.”

Some are successful at the box office and with critics, but most aren’t. And why is this? Why is a foreign film praised and applauded in its native country, but then critically destroyed here in America, even if the story was adapted exactly? The answer lies in knowing how people perceive a story’s origin and genre.

When we watch a foreign film. Let’s say, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (since it was popular with audiences worldwide), we may not understand everything that is happening from an American standpoint. If something in the movie is foreign to us (and as long as it isn’t too strange), we can still accept it, because we understand on a subconscious level that the film we are experiencing is not of our country. Our critique of the film is not as strong because we have nothing to really base it on, unless of course, we have already immersed ourselves in that particular culture.

When we try to translate these movies for an American audience, suddenly, the reception changes. Even if the story hadn’t been altered except for the language, there is something lost to the American people. American audiences become more critical of these remakes, even if they are unaware they were once foreign films, because they understand to some degree what an American film should feel and look like. The film industry is catering to a whole new audience now and they must understand what makes them happy. Many movies that weren’t received (and had foreign origins) are as follows: Quarantine, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Oldboy, Let the Right One In, The Grudge, Godzilla…

When catering to a specific audience, one must understand that audience’s expectations, culture, collective knowledge and common beliefs. An example of a foreign film done right is The Departed. Based on the Chinese film, Infernal Affairs, The Departed was critically acclaimed, nominated for Academy Awards and overall made good money at the box office. But it wasn’t just the story that captivated audiences, it was the alterations to the narrative that helped it shine.

The director and screenwriters of the remake could have simply followed the premise: A mobster infiltrates the local police while a police officer, in turn, infiltrates the mob, with both parties unaware of each other’s intentions. They could have left it at that.

However, the director decided to take the narrative a step further by immersing it in American culture. Using the Irish mob as a foundation and basing it off of real gangsters in American history, the movie was able to become more than just the average remake. The basic premise may have been taken from the Chinese film, but it was altered and adapted for American audiences. The result was a satisfying and lucrative payout for all those involved.

As writers, we must understand our audiences in order to succeed. It’s not enough anymore to want to write a memoir. We have to now understand who we’re writing it for. Detailing your life on the farm in rural Nebraska won’t resonate so easily with those of inner city New York. What themes in your memoir speak to all people universally? Writing a fantasy novel about a princess finding her prince might be exciting to the author, but how does the story stand out from all of the others? How can a brand new science fiction writer capture the heart of a reader that has been following the genre for decades?

A premise, even the adaptation of a premise, isn’t enough anymore. There has to be a flavor or at the very least, the illusion, of originality. If you tell someone that The Departed, A Fistful of Dollars, True Lies, and Scent of a Woman were all foreign films, they would probably be surprised. But it’s true, and these remakes hold their own alongside the originals.

You may want to be the next George R.R Martin, Philip K. Dick, Victoria Holt, Stephen King, J.K Rowling, or others, but you believe that you lack what it takes to achieve their status of success. Don’t be discouraged. You have the potential to rise even further than they. Immerse yourself into the market you’re writing for, know your readers, understand their likes and dislikes, develop or adapt a powerful premise, and then give it your own unique take for all the world to awe in.

Remember this: even if there are no more original ideas left in the world, there will always, always, be original combinations.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review: The Host

I know I'm late to the party on this one but you have to give me some leeway. After all, it received an aggregate of 8% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and only half of the audience liked it. That's usually not a good sign. Nevertheless, I decided to give this a shot, fully expecting that since my expectations were low, it was going to be an enjoyable experience.

The Host is a young adult science fiction novel written by the infamous Stephanie Meyer (author of the highly successful series, Twilight.) Set in a dystopian/utopian world (depending on how you look at it), the story's setting also involves the disconcerting fact that nearly all of Earth's population had been taken over by parasitic aliens. Said aliens log themselves onto your brain stem and take over your motor functions, memories, etc. However, occasionally, the human host fights back...

This tale begins with a young girl named Melanie Stryder who is part of a human resistance movement against the aliens. She is captured quite early on in the movie and taken over by one of the aliens. The alien is named Wanderer. You can think of "her" as a kind of free spirit that has been to numerous planets and enjoys experiences over order. Wanderer can experience all of Melanie's memories, including her past love life, and in no time at all, she begins to sympathize with her host, eventually forming an uneasy alliance with Melanie, and of course, trouble ensues.

The premise isn't bad, and I actually enjoyed Twilight (the book, not so much the movies) so that wasn't what troubled me the most. What I had a hard time getting past were two aspects:

1.) There were too many implausible situations in the narrative.
2.) The conversations between Melanie and Wanderer looks ridiculous on film.

To address the first  problem, I wont' go into too many details or I'll spoil some major parts of the film, but to get my point across, I'll ask you a question.
  • If there was a zombie apocalypse, and you were part of the last survivors on the Earth, would you allow a zombie to live among you without taking major precautions?
  • Would you fall in love with the zombie after a few days?
  • Why would you allow this particular zombie to live among you when there had been many, many others in the past? Why is this one so special? (I get it might be your niece, but to think that no one else in your group had family members they could have helped is just ridiculous)
For the second problem...well, let's just say that some books were not designed to be translated into film easily. Because Melanie is just a voice, she'll randomly shout out something or argue with Wanderer, while Wanderer has to give her retorts audibly. I understand what they're trying to do, it just doesn't translate well. It makes you want to laugh or wish that Melanie would just shut up (which would defeat the whole purpose of the movie).

And for the record, I actually enjoy romance novels so it's not like this is a bash against that. Maybe I'll make a list soon.

Either way, here's the rundown:

Go see it if: 
  • You are a Stephanie Meyer fan and you must experience all her work
  • You like Saoirse Ronan, because she is a good actress and does solid work here
  • You don't watch science fiction normally and want a good introduction to the genre without all the heavy "science"
  • You go with the flow with your movies. Plot holes don't matter as long as the experience is good. 
  • You have time to kill.
Don't go see it if:
  • You like your movies to make sense
  • You don't care for cheesy movies
  • You have to pay to see it.
Rating: 1.5 stars - While the actors and director certainly do their best to make the source material work on screen, the result is a cheesy, implausible mess that makes you laugh for all the wrong reasons.

Review: The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie is one of those rare animated features that upon first mention registers little more than a raise of the eyebrows and the question, "Why?" In an era in which there are an endless string of reboots, remakes and movies based off of toys (e.g Transformers, Battleship), it was probably only a matter of time before legos were a viable option.

Written and Directed by the creator of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and starring the up and coming actor Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation), the Lego Movie barely registered a blip on my radar until I saw a preview. Now, I'll be honest, I wouldn't have spent money on a kid's movie if I didn't have a two year old son but since I do, I actually paid attention. 
And I was intrigued...

Now a preview is not an accurate indication of how a movie will turn out, and it doesn't mean that the movie will end up being good (I'm looking at you, M. Night Shyamalan), but I was willing to give it a shot...and it did not disappoint.

Chock full of pop culture references (comic books, Star Wars), self-depreciating humor (making fun of their own products), hilarious set pieces and even a heart warming message, I actually think I enjoyed the Lego Movie more than my son did. A film made for adults as well as children, you'll be laughing the entire way through and after the credits have rolled, the theme song, "Everything is Awesome," will be long stuck in your head.  

I don't know how they did it, but this movie is a testament to the fact that any idea can be a success if properly executed. So, here's the rundown:

See it if:
  1. You like kid's movies or you have a child of your own
  2. You had a childhood in which you enjoyed any of the following: comic books, pirates, ninjas, star wars, an imagination or...legos.
  3. You want a good time at the movies and want to watch something that is actually critically praised (currently 95% on rotten tomatoes)

Don't see it if:
  1. You are looking for a highly complex, purely adult story.
  2. You don't understand mainstream pop culture (if you don't know who batman is, don't bother with this one)
  3. A lot of motion makes you nauseous.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Rating System

Sometimes I'll be reviewing others works. This can be a wide range of reviews covering a wide array of media including but not limited to:
  1. Books
  2. Movies
  3. Music
  4. Graphic Novels/Manga/Comics
  5. Video Games
Each review will be given a thorough explanation of likes and dislikes and a rating system of up to 5 stars:

1 star - Abysmal, horrible and everything in-between. The creator was either lazy, didn't care or didn't try. The worst of the worst. 

2 stars - Meh. This means the product was passable, and had at least 1 or 2 redeemable qualities, but ultimately, it's not that great. 

3 stars - Alright! It may not be memorable, but it kept my interest and I might have even laughed or learned a thing or two. It may not have changed my life, but it didn't make me hate it either.

4 stars - Good stuff! This is almost perfect. It will be remembered and I'm excited enough to even talk about it to others! It stands out against the grain, and has its own unique qualities.

5 stars - Epic. This is perfection incarnate. It will change how I view things in some manner. It could be as simple as a technique used, a joke well told, a moment that made me cry, a muse breaking out of the midst, the list goes on. But basically, I am impressed, and I won't be afraid to sing your praises in elaborate fashion!

Why every Author should read Death Note

Graphic novels are all the rave these days. Sales are higher than ever in the comic book/graphic novel market, and a sector of the publishing industry that was once deemed a niche category is now being given careful consideration. Want proof? Look no further than the critically acclaimed television show, The Walking Dead. Well into its 4th season, it continues to garner record breaking viewership and happens to be so successful that the executive producers want to keep the show running for another ten years. None of this would have happened without the success of the graphic novel, the medium in which the television series is based.

Graphic novels and comic books have now become “cool” and “acceptable” to the mainstream audience. There was once a time when the market was reserved only for “fan boys” and “geeks,” but now it is not uncommon to see a diverse group of people, of all ages, gender and race – flock to the theaters to see the new Captain America movie.

You may ask, what does any of this have to do with Death Note? What is Death Note?
Death Note is a popular manga (Japanese comic book) series that embodies the essence of a supernatural thriller, boasting a mind-bending narrative, complex characters and deep philosophical themes. Think of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, in terms of comparison and grand scale.
It is the story of Light Yagami, a brilliant young man who is at the top of his game when it comes to academics, friends and women. But despite what many would consider the perfect life, he is terribly bored. That all changes one day when he comes across an unimposing notebook lying the grass. Titled “death note,” he picks it up out of curiosity and takes it home to examine it further. To his surprise, he soon comes to a shocking realization: if a person’s name is written down in the death note…they will die.

Light Yagami soon uses it to “cleanse” the world of “evil,” with the intent of creating a utopia for all mankind. Little time passes before he begins thinking of himself as a God with his newfound weapon. However, the sudden and widespread deaths of criminals do not go unnoticed. A world renowned detective, only known by the letter L, takes on the case behind the mysterious murders, engaging Light in a shadowy game of cat and mouse in which the stakes only rise higher and their game becomes more and more dangerous.

I won’t spoil any of the fine details or the ending, but this is one of the few stories I’ve read in my life that wowed me. This includes other forms of entertainment such as movies, other books, comics and more. The story is perfectly crafted, the twists are astounding and shocking, and the characters are so alive that you’re not sure if you want to know the ending at all (since not all of them survive).
This is not just a comic book. This is not just a manga. It is a masterpiece that everyone should have the pleasure of reading. Weaving together a tale that is both entertaining and thought-provoking is not an easy feat to accomplish, yet Death Note manages to succeed on all levels, even with a premise that might sound silly at first.

So, why should every author take a chance at reading Death Note? Here are a few reasons.

1.)    Engaging in a form of entertainment you might not be familiar with will open your mind to new ideas and creativity. You may even find yourself looking for other manga to devour!

2.)    A masterpiece should be experienced by all those who seek to create their own in the future. For example, it is a widely held belief that if you are an aspiring writer, you must experience Shakespeare in some form. This is because he was revered as a master of his craft. As writers, we must learn from others before us, imitate the best they have to offer, and then once we have mastered the rules of our trade, we can break them, and begin to forge our own path.

3.)     You will learn that any premise can work. An ugly idea can easily become a beautiful swan, as long as it’s properly executed. You may be afraid to write out a particular story because the premise seems odd or unpopular, but this doesn’t mean it can’t work. It’s all in how you tell the tale.

4.)    You will realize that the best kind of stories don’t just entertain. They teach. It’s commendable if you know how to make a reader laugh or cry. But it’s downright impressive when your readers begin embedding lessons from your story into their lives.

Death Note is one of those stories that transcend beyond the page in a variety of ways, teaching the reader the art of storytelling while taking them on a rollercoaster ride of emotions. But don’t take my word for it. Why don’t you find out for yourself?