ETJ Writes

UNSTICK Your Plot & SMASH Writer’s Block | How to Create a Story from Nothing – Part 1

Hello Friends!

Welcome to a three-part series designed to get your story started or moving again, even (especially) if you have crippling writer’s block.

Throughout this series we’ll be looking at divers groups of problems and issues centering around creating and continuing a story from nothing, and discussing how to solve them.

Essentially, crafting a plot that gets you through from start to finish is little more than having a beginning and an ending point and placing obstacles in between that your characters must overcome. The more obstacles you throw in front of your characters, the longer or more twisty the plot can be.

This series focuses on getting you through the first draft, which doesn’t have to be perfect, doesn’t have to be fully fleshed out – it doesn’t even have to be good! – it just has to get done. Story elements such as theme, metaphor, and characterization hopefully reveal themselves as they go along – if you haven’t already plotted their inclusion – but don’t worry if such elements remain elusive in the beginning stages. Upon revising and redrafting your writing, you’ll be able to expand and add to your story as necessary.

This series mainly focuses on novel writing, but the concepts within also apply to the broader storytelling medium (film, video games, and the like), and many of the examples used throughout will pull from various different sources.

Part 1 – No Thoughts Head Empty

Part one of this series tackles common specific problems that crop up when starting a story and how to resolve them. A lot of these issues feed off each other, so there’s going to be some overlapping content, as is common when working with any type of art. If there’s an issue this article doesn’t mention or that you’d like to know more about, please drop a comment below.

Problem: I Want to Write a Story – No Idea How or Where to Start

This problem is more common with very new writers, whether they’re 12, 21, or 92. You sat down one day and decided you were going to be a writer. Maybe you have one or more of the other elements that will be mentioned below in your mind, but you haven’t the faintest clue of how to make it all come together. More than that, perhaps you don’t even know how to start!

All you know is that you have an empty page, and, somehow, you have to fill it.

Solution:

First, you should ask yourself, why do I want to write? Is it because a teacher or a friend suggested I should? Is it because I have an idea that needs to be shared with the world? Is it because I want to be rich and famous? Is the person who inspires me the most an author, and I want to follow in their footsteps? Is it because I have these characters knocking around in my head that won’t go away?

Once you’ve identified your initial motivation, if you have absolutely nothing, go and find something to inspire you. Read a lot of books, watch a lot of movies and plays, go for long walks in nature. You might even just put a list of subjects on a board and throw a dart at them. However you do it, pick a theme or an idea and start brainstorming.

For example, when looking outside I see the trees, which makes me think about leaves. So I could write a story about leaves or bark or roots. Once I’ve picked my subject, I’m going to keep it simple to start. I’ll write about the leaves falling in the autumn. By basing my story in reality, it’ll be easier to construct because I have something tangible from which to draw.

But just writing about leaves falling, with no twist to it, is simply writing my observations about nature – nice, but not a story. So I’ll focus on one leaf. I’m going to anthropomorphise this leaf, giving it a name and a personality. Now I have a character – let’s call him Rustle (the sound of the leaves when the wind blows through them, conveniently also a homophone of the name Russell) – and I’m going to give him some character. He’s afraid of autumn, because he’s already seen several other leaves fall, and he doesn’t want to leave his home in the tree.

I could have Rustle reminisce about how he got to this point, remembering all the things that could conceivably happen in a leaf’s life – a bird defecating on him, a caterpillar munching away, providing shelter during a rainstorm for a lady bug, feeling the sun on his face during a warm summer day, being an artist’s study, and so on. And then Rustle could speculate about what is coming next.

Ultimately, when he does fall (and perhaps this is a bit of a sad story) he could observe how, on the ground, he provides covering for the worms, or maybe he’s essential to the building of a leaf tipi, or is gathered up and made part of a leaf pile for young children to jump into. Perhaps, at the end, he is saved and framed on somebody’s wall, or made part of a lovely autumn wreath.

We could end with Rustle realising that perhaps fall isn’t so scary after all, and he’s experienced so much more than he would have if he’d stayed forever in his tree.

It’s a simple story, but it illustrates how you can pick literally anything to write about.

To recap, if you want to write, first identify your reason – it could be as simple as that you want to try it and see what happens – then pick a subject, inject some personality, and go from there.

Problem: Awesome Idea – No Clue How to Turn it Into a Story

Sometimes, you come up with an ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT idea (this is often what is called “high concept” in fiction), something like Inception, that runs on the premise: “what if you could enter into someone’s dreamworld and influence their mind?” and more subtly: “what if you couldn’t get out?” but you have no characters, no plot, no worldbuilding, no nothing besides the idea.

Solution:

I’m a character focused person, so I like to start there with my idea before adding other elements that will lead me to a coherent plot.

If you do start here, it’s often a good idea to consider whether your character will be mostly good, mostly bad, or somewhere in between. Then consider whether you want them to change or stay static over the course of the story (in which case, the world around them should change). You’re going to be asking a lot of “what if” questions during this process.

Look at The Terminator. It asks: “what if machines ruled the future? What if someone created a vibrant resistance to the machine overlords?” and then, the twist question, “what if one of those machines went back in time to preserve their own existence?” You can see how all these questions led James Cameron from his initial dream idea to the creation of an unfeeling, near-unstoppable, killing machine that we can’t help but watch in fascinated horror.

If starting with world-building, you’ll want to question how a particular idea would affect you, your friends, or the world you live in, if it were reality. You can really get into some exciting stuff with world-building as you re-imagine what society would look like if we never got away from the inventions of the industrial revolution (steampunk) or if science could give people superpowers (Marvel Comics) or if dragons lived at the same time as the vikings (Skyrim).

Once you have some answers to these questions, you can throw in a couple characters, give them a goal, and start placing obstacles in their way.

If starting with theme, try asking: what do I want my audience to come away thinking about? Often this method will lead you to start with the end of the story and build backward and is more often found in stories that tend to lend themselves to tragedy; think Romeo and Juliet or Jurassic Park. The first teaches us the dangers of never-ending feuds, the latter, the danger of playing God with science.

Once you have your world, your theme, and characters, however tightly or loosely you’ve crafted each element, you can now begin to build out your plot – if it hasn’t already started to come to you during these processes. Again, as stated at the beginning, what you want to do is pick a goal, whether internal (coming from the characters) or external (coming from what you want your readers to experience) and work toward that by creating challenges that your characters have to solve and overcome (or fail to overcome as the case may be.)

Problem: Awesome Characters . . . And Nothing Else

Sometimes, especially for the visual artist types (and often those going into writing comic books and video games and such), you come up with a great character or ten. These characters can be as simple as a face and general description, or they might spring into your mind fully formed, with a tonne of backstory. However, you might feel a little bit like a kid who’s just opened a pack full of Lego minifigures. You’ve got all these neat people inhabiting your fictional world – now what to do with them?

This is actually less of a problem than you might think. Amazing characters can make even the thinnest of plots work when written correctly. It’s why we enjoy programmes like Scooby-Doo or Brooklyn 99 or Supernatural, because while the plot can be fun and engaging (or sometimes, really, really silly), often in these types of shows, the story is less about the overarching narrative and more about how the characters relate to each other and the obstacles they face. Combining great characters with decent world-building and a solid narrative is what makes for a very memorable story. (Designing fully fleshed out characters can happen at any time during the writing process, so don’t worry too much if your characters feel somewhat flat or wooden in the first draft.)

Solution:

Before we fully dive into the solution, it’s worth considering what storytelling medium you’d like to use, as playing with format and setting is going to give you a better idea of what direction to take your story in.

Would your characters be well suited to a full length epic novel? Would they work better in a novella? Should you choose a slice-of-life comic book instead of a 90 minute screenplay? There is also genre to consider, as a character thrust into a sweet romance is going to act and react quite differently than the lead detective in a thriller novel. Explore multiple different options, and see what fits best.

Once you have that, it’s time to formulate your plot. Take what you know about your characters and give them a goal.

Depending on your world building, you may have to create a Disruption Event of some kind.

For instance, say you have a humdrum character living in a boring little town. Nothing bad has ever happened to them, and they’re enjoying their life. Then a sudden summer freeze kills off the town’s crops. People fall on hard times. Your main character (or someone close to them) loses their job. Now their main ambition is to return things to the status quo – or simply to survive. That’s their goal. How they accomplish or fail to achieve that goal is your story.

If we take a more complex character – say they’re existing in a world where they’ve lost a lot already, and they’re just trying to survive – they have friends (or have lost them and are living with the memories), and are constantly dealing with pressure from all sides. They make a decision to help a lost child and find themselves drawn into a brewing civil war. How your already well fleshed-out character reacts to these events, and how they change (or don’t, but how the world around them changes as a result of their actions) is your story.

Not every story needs a Disruption Event if your character has a clear goal – revenge, money, love, fame, success – (although adding one – or several! – can certainly spice things up, especially if the Disruption Event is actively preventing your character from accomplishing their dreams) and characters are often more interesting in these types of stories, proactively pursing their ambitions instead of reacting to the story around them.

Once you have your character’s goal pinned down (and this can certainly change throughout the story as they grow and become a different person), it’s imperative to place obstacles in the way of them achieving this goal. These can be internal or external.

For example: a young woman who wants to find love but is stymied by her crippling shyness, a mouse who wants to become a warrior but has never even left the nest, or a young man who wants to become a starfighter pilot, but is stopped by having his home destroyed and is forced to go on the run after receiving a message that holds the key to undermining a totalitarian government. (Yes, this is the plot of Star Wars.)

As mentioned before, how your character reacts to these obstacles and eventually reaches – or fails to reach – their goals is your story. Either type of ending can be a tragedy or a happily ever after, based on what happens along the way.

Problem: Awesome World-Building – No Characters or Plot

This section is related to the high concept idea, but focuses more on everything both tangible and intangible that our heroes might come into contact with. To use Star Wars as an example again, from blasters to ewoks, to ‘freshers and spice, all the details that make a fictional universe feel lived-in and believable form the world-building aspect of your story. You might find that you are absolutely brilliant at creating the nitty gritty details that make up your fantasy world, but you have no clue how to populate your world with people or take your aesthetic and turn it into a coherent narrative.

Solution:

Similarly to the Awesome Characters solution, it’s very helpful to consider what genre you want your story to inhabit. Sometimes the world-building on its own lends itself to the genre, but just because a world is, say, set in space, doesn’t mean it can’t also be a western (The Mandalorian) or a romance (Sirantha Jax series). Perhaps you’ve been playing with a high fantasy setting, but the narrative revolves around a series of murder mysteries, making it a detective story or a thriller. What kinds of characters would inhabit these subgenres? What would their stories look like?

Plumber by Punchyninja

Pick underutilised professions to highlight. What does a plumber or other type of handy man look like in this fantasy world? What problems would they encounter? What about doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals? How is information disseminated, and what types of characters are at the centre of that?

Challenge your world-building to extend beyond aesthetics to structures of religion or government. Look to real life to derive inspiration for the types of conflicts that arise from these structures, and keep drilling down until you reach the characters making the decisions that will drive the machine of your story.

Once you’ve applied your world-building to characters, ideas, or themes, sprinkle in some Disruption Events that shake up your carefully constructed world. Consider how the world-building can both solve and create problems. One good example of this is the Warriors series, which seriously examines the concept of cats having nine lives. On the one hand, our heroes have multiple chances to cheat death. On the other hand, this knowledge both makes them a target of enemy clans and gives them a false sense of confidence, leading them to act more recklessly than they might otherwise.

You can also use world-building to explore what happens when well meaning ideas are taken to an extreme, as is the case with The Giver, which presents a beautiful utopia on its surface but hides a dark truth, or Farenheit 451, which contemplates a reality where ideas running against the norm are literally destroyed.

(As an aside, if you are struggling to come up with characters to begin with, there are all sorts of character-building exercises you can find on the web, and if that fails, it’s a tried, tested, and true method of authors to base characters on people they know in real life.)


That concludes Part 1, and hopefully you now have a grasp on how to start your storytelling journey. Next up, we move from looking at beginning the story into how to develop and finish it. Make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss Part 2!

Happy Writing,
~ETJ

9 Tips for Nailing Multi POV

Hello, Friends!

An author must choose through which lens – and how many – a story will be told. Each has its benefits and its pitfalls. Some naturally lend themselves more to a certain type of story or genre, and while a story can be solely told from one character’s perspective, there are various aspects better explored through multiple lenses. (Plus, it’s really fun!)

Using dual or multi POV is an excellent way to create and build tension, as one character might reveal something to the readers that another character has no way of knowing, something that might lead to their downfall if they’re unable to read the warning signs in time.

Multi POV also allows readers (and the author, while writing) to take breaks from being stuck inside one character’s head the entire time. Some of my favourite parts of books or television episodes are the ones where we get to look at the main characters from an outside perspective, which in turn reveals even more about the characters, the world they live in, and the overall story than we knew before.

In books, in particular, authors can create cliffhangers that pull the reader along by ending a chapter with one character in peril, and then jumping to a different character for a little bit, heightening our desire to find out what has happened.

But dual or multi POV can also go wrong and end up becoming jarring and off-putting to readers when done incorrectly. With that in mind, here are 9 tips I’ve picked up both as a reader and a writer to help you write multi POV with confidence to create an irresistible reading experience.


  1. Limit POV Characters

My first tip – especially for newbie writers – is to limit the amount of characters telling the story.

Instead of giving everyone and their grandmother a chance to narrate the story, limit the perspectives to the protagonist, antagonist, and possibly a side character or two. Keeping track of a huge cast of named characters is difficult enough in single POV, but when you’re adding multiple voices into the mix, reducing the perspective to 2-5 main characters makes the story much easier for readers to follow and helps to reduce plot holes.

  1. Keep POVs Centered Around the Main Characters/Plot

As a reader, multiple perspectives lose me entirely when the POVs veer into side-quest territory. I do enjoy side quests when undertaken by the main character, but if secondary character no. 3 is off having their own adventures with secondary character no. 4, and nothing of their plot lines effect, or even in any way relate to the main character or overarching story being told, I greatly struggle to maintain interest in the book. I didn’t sign up to read about these random characters, and so I feel a bit cheated and like I’ve wasted my time on a plot line that went nowhere.

To combat this, make sure other perspectives connect to the protagonists, antagonists, or narrative at large.

For example, my scifi novel, Thorunn , is told mostly from Laine, Kenton, and Bo’s perspectives. However, when I do dip into the minds of other characters (there are at least six other POVs we get to experience) it’s always to reveal something about the two main characters, Kenton and Laine. Yes, we get to learn about these minor characters in a way that we couldn’t have from outside their perspective, but their narratives in the story are specifically related to the main plot and characters.

  1. Don’t Give Equal Weight to Everyone

Related to the previous idea, when using multiple that expands beyond the main characters, not everybody needs to tell the story for the same amount of time. Spending too much time with minor characters can lead to the problem mentioned above, where readers feel like their time is wasted by meaningless filler.

Now, some authors can get away with this. A notable example would be Kishimoto Masashi. Especially in the latter half the Naruto manga, whenever a new character is introduced, Kishimoto dives extensively into their backstory. But because these characters’ histories are so interesting, and are tied into the world-building so well, the fact that Kishimoto was essentially using these POVs as a way to stretch out the manga as long as possible can be forgiven, overlooked even, because they are so compelling.

This however, is the exception, not the norm. George R.R. Martin spent a lot of time on POVs that fundamentally went nowhere in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, and even though his books are critically acclaimed, many readers were left frustrated at the amount of unnecessary plot. Martin himself has admitted that he wrote himself into a corner with the almost excessive storylines that resulted from so many different perspectives. Unless you’re interested in spending years untangling story threads, it’s best to keep outside POVs simple, focused, and short.

Be careful, however, not to make your POVs too short. If pages which are spent following one character are randomly intercut with single paragraphs featuring another character’s perspective, or if you have constantly have short section after short section jumping between POVs, it’s liable to give the reader whiplash. (Long-running soap operas are particular offenders in this area.)

  1. Build Up to and Away From Multiple Characters

If the story absolutely demands to be told through a large cast, it can be extremely helpful to ease your way into it. Start with just a few characters and slowly add more perspectives as the story or series progresses. That way, readers have time to get to know and become attached to these characters (being introduced to them through already established POVs first), making them far more invested in following their individual stories.

Conversely, when the plot is on the edge of getting too bloated, it’s helpful to begin narrowing the story down, bringing characters back together – or killing them off – and thereby reducing the amount of POVs needed to tell the story, as happens in The Lord of the Rings.

  1. Give Your POV a Purpose

As I mentioned in the intro, dual or multi POVs are fantastic tools to offer insight beyond what the main character thinks and experiences. But additional POVs shouldn’t be there simply to reach a wordcount or extend a screenplay to the desired running time.

Rather, each perspective should offer a unique view of the story that helps to expand and enrich it. If you can skip certain POVs and not miss anything, it either shouldn’t be in the story, or it should be reworked to be more meaningful to the plot.

  1. Don’t Just Switch the Characters’ Names

This is a particularly irritating type of POV unfortunately common among romance stories. A story that features dual POV but the only difference between the perspectives is that the names have been switched is extremely boring. It’s also rather lazy writing. I’m not interested in reading the exact same story twice. Even if there are more substantial changes to the actual text, if the dialogue is carbon copy the same, as a reader, I’ll quickly lose interest.

The best stories I’ve read that retread the same ground in dual POV vary enough from each other that while it’s obviously an identical set of events from the other character’s perspective, the differences have me going back over the previous bits over and over again, comparing where they line up, and digging into the internal thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the characters. Done well, this can be some of the most fascinating storytelling. My favourite example of this in television is the Rashamon trope, where multiple characters, all starting from the same point, recount their version of a shared experience, with each character’s version wildly diverging from the others’.

  1. Avoid 1st Person

Tip no. 6 is to avoid first person when writing dual or multi POV. Some writers can make multi POV work fantastically in first person, but unless the characters have extremely distinct or strong inner voices, reading first person multi POV can often feel as if you’re experiencing the story through the same character, which completely defeats the purpose of including more than one perspective.

It’s not good if readers can’t tell the characters apart and have to constantly flip back to the chapter headings to remember who is speaking – especially if it’s a romance novel. Men and women think differently, so their POVs should read differently as well.

By writing in third person instead, the constant use of the characters’ names will easily remind the reader from whose perspective each section or chapter is being told.

  1. Give Each POV a Unique Voice

Related to number six, if your story demands to be written in first person, while labeling the chapters or sections does help, your characters must be distinct enough that readers can tell who is speaking regardless. Thorunn CoverPerhaps one character stutters a lot or is very snarky. One character could be extremely steam-of-consciousness, while another is guarded and spare with their thoughts.

This applies when writing third-person deep or limited as well. Again, this is something I utilised in ⚡Thorunn⚡ . Laine, Kenton, and Bo are all different people, with different life experiences. The prose I employed for Kenton is not the same as the words and sentence structures I used for Laine. During revisions I was constantly having to change sentences to better express how each character would articulate their thoughts.

  1. Experiment with Format

Last but not least, play around with how you incorporate dual or multi POV. There’s the tried and true method of devoting chapters to differing perspectives (which is nice for labeling purposes), but POV can certainly switch within chapters as well.

Try using different mediums to communicate an outside perspective. Diary entries, newspaper clippings and broadcasts, emails and letters, and historical writings are all great ways to include information that the main character might not have access to. Some novels (such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula) are written entirely in this epistolary manner – similar to the “found footage” horror films that have become popular in recent years.

Stylistically, many novels include this information in the form of an epigraph at the beginning or ending of each chapter.


There you have it, my 9 tips on nailing dual or multi POV from a reading writer. Feel free to share your favourite POV tips in the comments!

Happy Writing!
~ETJ

 

Rebel Characters – Response

Hello Friends!

Recently, an excerpt from the article Outlaw Kings and Rebellion Chic came across my tumblr dashboard, and I thought I would pen a quick response. Two hours and 2000+ words later, I realised I had had quite a lot more to say on the subject than I realised. The response is posted on my tumblr blog, but I thought I would share it here as well:


Hmm.

This really doesn’t make sense to me.

No 1. We have the American Revolutionary War, which dragged out for a couple (6) years past the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, which pretty clearly lays out the goals of the revolutionaries. When we learn about them in history (despite other flaws that we can detail at another time) we root for the men and women who dedicated themselves to the cause, and the system they set in place still holds up fairly well hundreds of years later.

So that’s an example from history that contradicts that point, I think.

No. 2 Luke (Really Leia, since she was the princess and had political power) was fighting for a restoration (but reformed so they didn’t repeat the mistakes of the past) of the Old Republic. As we’ve seen from the prequel trilogy (“so this is how liberty dies”) this republic did not function in a communistic way, so it is a fallacy to even bring this up as an argument, because the greater context of the movies CLEARLY lays out what kind of government (both locally and galactically) the rebels were seeking to establish.

The author does go deeper into Star Wars in the article, arguing that “Rebellion in Star Wars, rather than a means to an end, is a camouflage that conceals a total void of ideology.” But even though the Old Republic that we saw was corrupt (and ultimately led to the rise of the Empire), it still functioned, had functioned for 25 thousand years. The Empire’s public domination (though the takeover started a few decades sooner) was a tiny blip (23 years specifically) in comparison. Of course the rebels wanted to get back to a government, a very clearly stated republic (searching the Star Wars wiki will give you more detail than you ever wanted about how it is practically run) that had governed decades, if not centuries (given the longevity of some Star Wars species) of their lives.

To sum up, unless you are stating specific policies (and, as mentioned, greater canon would actually give you these goals in detail) it’s no more a “void of ideology” to have Luke advocating for communism vs the return of the Old Republic.

(And all of that is without considering how the Empire was run.)

No 3. Daenerys Targaryen.

This article was written before the finale, where Dany was very clearly portrayed as a villain gone made with power. I strongly believe her ending in the books (whenever they are finished) will be much more tragic and nuanced. Still, her character arc DOES NOT paint her as a rebel. She (and her brother) always believed that they were the rightful rulers of Westeros, and therefore, were not rebelling by definition. They were simply reclaiming their stolen crown.

Now, had Jon Snow (SPOILERS FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO AREN’T CAUGHT UP) been raised with the knowledge of his true heritage—that before Robert Baratheon’s rebellion and takeover he was the true heir to the throne—and had then reclaimed that throne, and then Dany had challenged him, THAT would have constituted rebellion.

But without this knowledge, Dany’s actions (while not always morally justifiable) certainly make logical, narratively supported sense. And she CERTAINLY was violent in her dealings.

To address the “series of peasants’ councils” point, sure, why not? If that’s what Dany had stated clearly and explicitly that she was going to do, I could get behind that. That’s not the great point the author presumably thinks it is.

No 4. “smash the Ministry of Magic and overturn wizard supremacy”

Hermione Granger by Constantin Vilsmeier

From the Harry Potter Wiki: “[Hermione Granger] later found employment with the Ministry of Magic, furthering the cause for the better treatment of house-elves. Afterward, she was promoted to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, where she dedicated herself to eradicating old laws that were biased in favour of pure-bloods.”

To get a bit deeper, Harry was just trying to survive. He had a terrible home life, and school, the only place where he felt safe, was also inextricably linked to the man trying to kill him (and all his minions). But Hermione, all throughout the books (a medium which it doesn’t appear that the author paid much attention to) is EXTREMELY dedicated to fighting for justice. Is it a failing of the movies not to bring this to the forefront? Of course, but there are limitations to consider when adapting a story to screen, and unfortunately, things get left on the cutting room floor.

Further Points

To address some further points in the article, the author states that “the heroic rebel is non-ideological and motivated by personal injury more than anything,” which must be countered.

Harry was rebellious, but not a rebel. In the context of the story, Voldemort was the rebel. Voldemort had very explicit ideology.

Luke joined the Rebellion, which had already been going on for some time. Leia, and the other generals, had a clear goal of restoring the Old Republic (and EVERYTHING that went along with that, messy or no).

Daenerys is not a rebel as set up by the story’s narrative. She hardly even rebels against situations that might harm her. Had her brother and husband not died, she would not have been the one leading the army to reclaim King’s Landing, but narratively that event still would have happened. Both siblings were motivated by duty, not personal injury, in their quest to reclaim their crown, and it’s usually not considered rebellious to recover something that was stolen from you.

I will allow that it is unclear what “break the wheel” meant on the tv show, but one unclear goal does not negate Dany’s very clearly stated wish to rule her kingdom as an all powerful queen.

“And if dispute over the political system is enough to justify force, then that implies violence against the modern Western state, even its violent overthrow, could be justifiable. This is understandably concerning for many writers, who tend to come from backgrounds closer to the Lannisters than the ‘smallfolk’.”

Wow. So this part strays into real world politics (of which I already gave an example from history) but, to be brief, violent revolution is NOT preferred. There is a reason the French revolution dragged out for so long. If people could simply state what they wanted and the opposing party said “okay, sure” then conflict could be avoided. It is when the ruling party ignores or outright censures (by force or whatever else) the people who have stated their firm desires, when there isn’t even a system in place that allows for these demands to be met, that is when violence must be resorted to.

And in fiction, this can be done, and done WELL. To imply that this never happens is utterly disingenuous.

The author need only watch Babylon 5 to find an excellent example of a small group of rebels (note, they didn’t start that way) with a clearly defined goal (to maintain a neutral space where all races could meet) using violence to achieve that goal. Babylon 5 has many more such examples from varying groups within the series, so it is well worth watching for that and many other reasons.

The second part of the author’s statement “many writers, who tend to come from backgrounds closer to the Lannisters” is wrong on so many levels.

1. The Lannisters (despite eventually running out of money) were UNBELIEVABLY rich and powerful. To put this in more modern terms, you could think of them like the Trump or British Royal Family. To say that many writers are closer to them in terms of wealth, power, and influence (and I’m extrapolating here, as the author doesn’t actually define it that clearly) is very easy to disprove. A few *might* be, but many? Most writers ARE the small folk. Now if we’re talking about studio execs etc. that might be a different story, but most writers, even well established screenwriters, are closer to you and me than the two families mentioned above.

2. The author is implying that because—in their opinion—movie/tv screen writers somehow are unbelievably rich and powerful, that when they write revolutions, they do so from the perspective of rich and powerful folks who only want clean, sanitised revolutions. Problems with this idea are as follows: 1. Even taking wealthy screenwriters at face value, most didn’t start off that way. It wasn’t until Star Wars’ successful release that George Lucas became a household name. 2. Adaptions to screen often come from books, which are often written by regular folk just like you and me. Even if an author gets a million dollar book deal, that book was (likely) still written while they were poor and struggling, i.e. not influenced by a wealthy background (case in point, J.K. Rowling with book 1), and if any clear, ideological goals are lost from book to screen, that is not the fault of the original writers.

So to place blame on writers for creating “a popular culture in which rebellion is vague enough to be meaningless” is at best, a misunderstanding, and at worst, a lie.

What the greater extent of this article fails to recognise is that the hero is often operating in situations that already have moving parts and players, ready to step in and do the necessary work that the hero might not be able to (being one person and all). Going back to the Declaration of Independence—George Washington led the army, and did indeed become the first president, but many men affixed their names to that document, and many more actually formed the subsequently established government.

Furthermore, why IS it that the hero is often static until things affect them personally? Because a hero taking up arms and fighting for a cause they have no interest doesn’t make for a narratively compelling story. (On the flipside, we can excuse the protagonist doing a LOT of selfish and awful things for personal reasons—Deadpool, John Wick etc.) That doesn’t mean the hero doesn’t have a definite ideology, just that they are often not compelled to act upon it until it means something to them on a deeper level.

The author also points out that many terrible governments in fiction draw from real-world systems, which, while absolutely true, doesn’t necessarily mean that all these systems are cruel, oppressive, or so broken they must be overthrown, and that pushing back against this idea is wrong. Fiction often takes an existing idea and runs with it to its most extreme conclusion, good or bad. To break into real-world politics for a moment, arguing that because “the structural violence and supremacist ideology [Voldemort] represents [echoes] all the ways empire has warped the very roots of the British state” means that the current day British government is horrible, no good, is like saying, well look at Venezuela! Their government went badly wrong, so all systems of government that are like this one (socialism) must necessarily go badly wrong too.

Just because we often use fiction to imagine and explore the worst conceivable end result of a particular ruling ideology doesn’t mean that it is wrong at its core tenets. And so to say that rebellions are sanitised in fiction because we don’t want to look too closely at our own government is untrue. Often, fiction can be a wakeup call—I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “1984” thrown around by people of all political affiliations since 2016—a way to get us to look closer at, not away from, real world situations.

Literature, and pop culture by extension, is ABSOLUTELY capable of asking the hard questions about revolution/rebel characters. These are questions we DO want to ask, or else films like Cloud Atlas, or the Matrix, or the Hunger Games, or Rogue One, or Captain America: Winter Soldier, (and many more) wouldn’t exist.

Perhaps the author was distracted by the spectacle of the screen, and missed the underlying themes, but good stories don’t fill in every single gap. Good stories leave us wanting more, asking questions, and allow us to more fully explore the implications of what we see on screen, which the author appears not to have done here, instead taking the media mentioned in the article at face value and failing to look any deeper.

When is political violence appropriate, for whose benefit, and for what purposes? There’s often not a clear answer to these questions, particularly because what is justifiable to one person might be abhorrent to another, but what is clear is that fiction gets us thinking deeply about these things, and the author needs to stop disregarding the context of each piece of media highlighted in the article to try and prove some sort of real world political point.

TL;DR

In summation—context is king, and a “happy” ending doesn’t negate the underlying implications presented in pieces of media featuring rebel characters. If we are not asking ourselves hard questions when presented with the aforementioned genre, when the hard questions are very much present, then perhaps that is a personal failure—and not a fault of the film/tv show/literature—to understand what we are consuming.


Thanks for reading!

~ETJ

Book Events in the Time of Covid :)

Hello Friends!

As is the case for many of you, I suspect, this year didn’t go at all like what I had planned.

My second novel, Thorunn, was released in May, and while I’ve certainly enjoyed discussing the book online, I struggled to put together offline events, for a number of reasons. However, I refused to let all the hurdles in my way make things grind completely to a halt. I was blessed to be able to throw together a few book signing events – one a more private, impromptu event at a yard sale I co-hosted over the summer, and the other two at more prominent, public locations.

The first of these was at The Reader’s Café, a charming little bookshop-slash-cafe in downtown Historic Hanover. The cafe was once a church before being turned into the book haven it is today, and has lovely internal architecture. Since it was also International Talk Like a Pirate Day, of course I had to go in cosplay, debuting another new look by mix-and-matching pieces I had already made. It was really wonderful to connect with avid readers while supporting a small business, and I hope to return in the future with more books!

The second place I was able to visit to sign books was the captivating cave at Indian Echo Caverns. I didn’t actually make it to the caves this time, since it was so windy I was afraid my books would fly away if I stepped away to take a quick peek, but being on the grounds (under a lovely Greek-styled stone pavilion), seeing all the animals, and enjoying the sights and smells of the surrounding food trucks was wonderful in its own way. And of course, chatting with book fans was the highlight.

By now, I think it’s apparent that I rather enjoy cosplay, so again, I went dressed as a character, one I debuted on Thorunn’s launch day, Lachelle Michaels, who is a soldier appearing in the second half of the novel.

All in all, despite the many limitations this year has brought, I am so thankful I was still able to make the best of it, and I consider these events to be a success! Here’s to looking forward to 2021, and until then, happy reading!

~ETJ Writes

⚡️THORUNN⚡️ @ Indian Echo Caverns

Celebrating Hummelstown’s Shop Small Saturday


November 28, 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM

Indian Echo Caverns

Featuring free colouring sheets, word-search and crossword puzzles, and book signing/reading by young adult author Esther T. Jones


Saturday, November 28 is Hummelstown’s Shop Small Saturday, helping to promote and celebrate local businesses!

Esther T. Jones will be participating at Indian Echo Caverns, appearing in ⚡️THORUNN⚡️ themed cosplay, and answering all your book related questions.

It’s going to be a great time, so come on down, and check out the cave while you’re at it!

Signed copies of both of Jones’ novels will be available for purchase before and after the event.

Information regarding cave tours can be found at the Indian Echo Caverns Facebook page.

The Best-Kept Book Secret (Little Free Libraries)

Hello Friends!

Have y’all heard of Little Free Libraries?

They’re basically a take-a-book leave-a-book system dedicated to getting more books into the hands of readers. They’re also a FANTASTIC place to donate books you don’t want anymore. I was introduced to the idea in 2019 by @littlefreelibraryreads on Instagram, and since then have made it a mission to hunt down all the Little Free Libraries I can, leaving my novels, and bookmarks too!

A lot of public libraries were unable to open their doors for a substantial amount of time during the summer, which is a KEY time for children to develop their reading skills. Thankfully, given the outdoor positioning, and limited interaction nature of Little Free Libraries, many families were still able to obtain books for summer reading.

A lot of Little Free Library custodians were also amazing during this time, providing ample amounts of hand sanitizer and wipes, and making sure the libraries were stocked with fresh books.

If you want to find a Little Free Library in your area, simply plug your location into this map, and get ready to go on an adventure!

https://littlefreelibrary.org/ourmap

 

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Top 5 Must-Buys for Indie Authors

Hello Friends!

Today we’re talking about the top five things you as an indie author absolutely MUST invest in if you want your book to have the best shot at success during and after publication.

Of course, you can do everything yourself and not spend any money, but chances are your final product will be rather poor quality both inside and out and therefore off-putting to potential readers. Not to mention, you might wind up giving away the rights to your book if you’re not careful.

So without further ado, here are the top five Must-Buys I recommend serious indie authors put money towards.


1. Book Cover

Unless you’re insanely talented, it’s a really good idea to outsource this part of the publishing process to someone else. Your cover is the first thing a reader sees, whether on a bookshelf or online (especially given that our world is very visual these days, a move that is increasingly more driven by social media) and getting it right is KEY if you want your book to sell.

You’ll want your cover to fit within your book’s chosen genre – for example, many scifi books have planets or tech on them, letting you know instantly what kind of book it is – and also fit current trends without being too locked into whatever is popular, given that tastes change very quickly in the publishing world.

You can work closely with an artist/cover designer to execute your vision or you can purchase pre-made covers. Either way, expect to spend anywhere from $100-$500 (possibly more) depending on what on level of quality and customization you are looking for, and on how many revisions are needed.

Don’t forget to credit your cover artist on your copyright page!

2. Editing

There are lots of different types of editing – developmental, line, copy, and proofreading, for example – and each stage is critically important for your manuscript to be the best version of itself. A traditional publishing company will have all these editors in-house, sometimes in multiple departments, often in just one or two people. However, as an indie, you’ll have to pay for each stage of editing yourself, which can end up being quite costly. The most consistent advice I’ve seen is to stick to beta readers and critique partners for the first few stages, and hire out to professionals once you are closer to the end.

I personally like to invest my money in a really good copy edit, but you may choose to put your money toward a different stage, or several, or all of them.

Quick side note here – I see quite a few people in writing groups mention that they paid someone to edit and then threw their books on Amazon without looking at their manuscript, and readers ruthlessly criticized the books for being riddled with errors. When you pay to get your book edited, your editor should mark changes, and upon receipt of your edited copy, you should be the one to accept or reject them.

Always proofread whatever you get back from the editor! As an indie author, it’s ultimately your job to write your book, not the editor’s.

Keep in mind that this is where you will likely spend the majority of your budget on self-publishing. There are very good editors out there who offer incredible discounts for indie authors, and you can have your novel-length book edited for as little $400-500, but for the most part, expect to spend anywhere from $1000-$4000 or so (depending on word count) on a good clean edit of your book.

3. ISBNs

The third thing I highly, highly, encourage you to spend money on are ISBN’s. I can already hear so many of you asking, “But don’t companies like IngramSpark and Amazon allow you to publish with a free ISBN?”

The answer is yes, but also no.

Yes, there are free ISBNs you can obtain from these companies, but they will ONLY work with those companies, and you cannot publish your book – that version of it anyway – on any other platform. That means that the free ISBN you have lacks the full functionality of an ISBN purchased through Bowker’s website.

Additionally, by using a free ISBN, you voluntarily hand over your publishing rights to your book.

Yes, you read that correctly. Not the copyright, but the publishing rights. But only for whatever particular version of the book you are publishing. So if you publish a paperback at a certain trim size with a free ISBN, you CAN publish an audiobook, ebook, or hardcover copy (at a different trim size to be on the safe side) with an ISBN you previously purchased and still retain your rights to that version of your book, which can then be printed/plublished with any platform you desire.

Of course, many people (especially in the ebook space) have published their books with a free ISBN and been fine, but since indie publishing is all about you being the one in control at the end of the day, it’s nice to be able to say you own the publishing rights to your own book. For this reason, I highly recommend purchasing your own ISBNs.

You can buy a single ISBN for $125, but since each given format of a book requires a different ISBN, I recommend you go for a bulk purchase and buy a pack of 10 at $295, which is a 75% discount.

4. Bookmarks

Now onto number four; bookmarks! There are so many websites out there that will let you upload custom designs and print and order sets of 500 to 1000 bookmarks that it’s WELL worth your money to invest in this. Bookmarks are probably the best in-person marketing tool for an indie author, as they are small, light, unobtrusive, useful and very easy to give away.

You can expect to spend anywhere from $60-$200 depending on how many bookmarks you order, what quality you choose, and which service you go with. I recommend ordering a few first to see if you like them before making a larger purchase.

5. Marketing

Lastly, we have advertising! Most indie authors are on a shoestring budget to begin with (and if you paid for a good edit, you might broken the bank already), so you can definitely invest time and effort into social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or other social media platform of your choice for free. However, it’s generally worth it to spend a little money on ads to get people outside of those platforms looking at your book.

I recommend AMS ads first and foremost. This is an ad option offered by Amazon if you are publishing through their KDP service. You can advertise both kindle and paperback versions with them, and the results can be highly effective, given that people using Amazon are already browsing the site with the intention of making a purchase and so are much more likely to be favourable to ads.

They can be tricky to get the hang of, but Author Dave Chesson has put together some courses and resources on how to effectively use and get the most out of AMS ads without spending bucket loads of money, which I highly recommend checking out.

Additionally, many indie authors find success with facebook ads, and to varying degrees of success, things like Bookbub deals. The 20Booksto50K Facebook group has a tonne more info on this.

I personally recommend doing a BIG push with ads right around your book launch, maybe a day or two ahead, definitely on the release date, and then for a couple months after – some people keep ads running indefinitely, and if this fits your budget, you can experiment with that as well, through perhaps at a much lower spend point.

If you do your research before jumping into buying ads, it can really help to minimize the amount of money you spend on them. I think it’s best if you keep it comparable to whatever you spend on your book’s cover, and you can probably expect to spend anywhere from $200-10,000 on ads depending on how much revenue they bring in. (I know that second number sounds scary, but there are indie authors making $10K or more a month on their books, and so can afford to turn around and reinvest that money into making sure new readers find them.)


So there you go! The top five things you should spend money on as an indie author.

Book Covers, Editing, ISBNs, Bookmarks, and Ads. I can’t give you a concrete number on all these things combined, because there is so much variance that goes into each element, but it’s worth noting that what you put into your work is what you will get out of it.

And that includes confidence! If you think you can put the best version of your book out there without spending any money, go for it! But readers expect quality – especially in such an oversaturated market – and it’s difficult to achieve that without spending at least a little money.

(There are other publishing/marketing things you can choose to invest in such as fanart, merch, book conventions, etc. They aren’t as necessary to sell your book in my opinion, but can be very fun and rewarding, and I do enjoy a good bookfair myself.)

Drop any questions you have in the comment section, and I wish you all the best on your publishing journeys.

Happy indie authoring!

~ETJ

Stock images sourced from unsplash or pexels

Author Interview/Book Review – E.S. Barrison, “The Mist Keeper’s Apprentice”

Hello Friends!

Today I’m so excited to be sharing an exclusive interview with dark fantasy author E.S. Barrison, as well as my review of Barrison’s debut novel The Mist Keeper’s Apprentice.

I first stumbled across Barrison on Tumblr, during an event focused on character backstories, and almost instantly fell in love with Brent, one of her main characters. Since then, I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with this talented fellow author, and I’ve eagerly followed along on her journey to publication, looking excitedly forward to the day when I would be able to read her work in full.

Following is the interview, and then my review of the novel below that. (I will note that, as this is an adult fantasy book, there is rather a bit of language sprinkled throughout, as well as allusions to sensitive topics, so younger readers (teens) are advised to read with caution.)


The Mist Keeper's ApprenticeThe Mist Keeper’s Apprentice by E. S. Barrison
🌟🌟🌟🌟

I definitely enjoyed reading this book. It’s always exciting to follow along on a debut author’s journey, and I’ve eagerly soaked up the excerpts and illustrations Barrison has been generous enough to share as part of her pre-publication process.

Funnily enough, while I initially fell for Brent from the snippets posted on tumblr, when I actually started reading, I found I really connected with Rho. She’s quite intriguing, and has both an inner and outer strength that is perfectly tempered with her gentle and kind character. Rho was really the highlight of this novel for me, and she is a wonderful complement to Brent, who is determined to give up on himself from the very first chapter.

The prose was easy reading, which sucked me right into the world of the book, and I was never bored at any point. The novel moves along at quite a fast clip, allowing some down time here and there, but never lingering in any one place for too long, moving the reader along with the characters through each next adventure (some rather more bizarre than others!)

I did find the worldbuilding to be a bit confusing at first, but the more I read, the more was revealed, until I felt—for a time—that I also lived in Rosada, and understand this strange, and yet oddly familiar, world. There are a lot of characters and places, but the only ones I really struggled to remember were the Council—and I think that’s because of how sinister most of them seemed, blending together as a sort of faceless “bad.”

And speaking of the Council—while the Order were ostensibly the “villains” of the novel, lurking in the background, and pulling the shady strings of Brent and Rho’s lives, I found the Council—with their contradictory and obsfucatory ways—to be just as, if not more, unsettling. I felt terribly for Brent through much of the book, running from one bad situation headlong into another, all the while surrounded by people who professed a desire to help him, and never quite sure who to trust.

Brent’s powers were pretty cool, his abilities regarding stories something I think any storyteller can relate to, and the way the novel ended—wow! I’m highly intrigued about where his path will take him next.

Overall, I had quite the entertaining time reading this novel, and I think other fans of fantasy will have a wonderful lark indeed in this strange little world Barrison has created.


View all my goodreads reviews

So there you have it, my review of “The Mist Keeper’s Apprentice.” But don’t just take my word for it, pick up a copy for yourself, and be swept away by the mists of adventure!

You can find E.S. Barrison here:
headshot

 

And her debut novel can be purchased through Amazon (among other major online book retailers).

Happy Reading,
~ETJ

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