William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Getting Hot Art for a Cold Story

A couple of days ago, I released a new short story called "Stay Cold" on Amazon and Smashwords. As with two of my other stories, I was fortunate enough to have Andria Cogley of A. Cogley Design supply the cover art. I've written here before about how important it is to get professional help when producing ebooks, but to illustrate the point, I wanted to show you the process we went through on the cover for "Stay Cold" and how a good designer's intuition will usually trump a writer's best graphical ideas every time.

Long before I went to Andria with the story, I started with this image:

This copyrighted shot was supplied to me by a photographer friend, the immensely talented Gary Wilson. I instantly fell in love with the drama of the approaching snowstorm and how it seemed to warp the sun's light. Especially viewed at full size, the photograph is incredible, and it seemed to encapsulate this sense of impending disaster. I sent the picture to Andria, told her I thought it was the greatest thing ever, and asked her to do something with it. This was the initial result:

I know Andria is probably cringing while reading this, as she strongly encouraged me not to share the image while the cover was in progress. (Sorry, Andria...but we're good now...right?) She was very up front about indicating her dislike of this draft. I'd noted that the concept of melting figured into the story, so she gave the sun a warmer tone. And since that warm sun would be revealing some unsavory elements buried in the storm, she threw a hand into the foreground as a sort of conceptual placeholder.

But as Andia had insinuated, the whole cover just flopped. The colors weren't right. Nothing popped out visually. Why was there textured ground after a blizzard that flattened everything? And most of all, where was the approaching storm? I tried to futz with the composition myself and just couldn't get the storm back into the frame. It was a bust.

That takes us to draft number two:

At first, I resisted this version. I missed the storm, most of all. But the longer I looked at this draft, the more I recognized where Andria was going. Now, we had a bloody hand that looked to be trapped under thawing ice. That lent a drama to the scene that was wholly absent in my design. Was the owner of the hand alive or dead? Why was there blood? Most importantly, this new urgency now gave fresh, intriguing ambiguity to the title. If someone was trapped, why should it "stay cold"?

At this point, I hadn't finished the story, and Andria couldn't read my mind. I had to tell her that there was no ice in the tale. We needed the snow back. Also, I missed the big, blocky font from the first draft, which struck me as more dramatic and imperative.

So we went into draft number three:

When this popped out of my inbox, my breath caught in my chest. I'm going to start calling that "The Andria Effect." I had never even mentioned frostbite to her. There is no mention of frostbite in my story. But she thought that up independently, and it completely made the cover. OK, I'll be honest. I'd never seen frostbite before and didn't know that it would turn finger extremities black. I had to look it up in Google Images, and that was no treat on a full stomach, let me tell you.

I loved damn near everything about this cover. You get the snow, but it's a texture, not distracting detail. There's blood, so you know something possibly violent has happened, but the blood takes a back seat to the frostbite, which in turn visually pops against the pale background. (Note that it's the same hand as was used in the second draft, only dressed up in a lot of Photoshop layers. I really wish I knew how to create effects like that.) I got my big font back, and I even dug the way she sort of set it into the snow.

The only thing still needed was cleaning up some of the oddly placed snow texture and frostbite/blood stains that looked more like ink than damaged tissue. Andria also added some puckering to the skin to simulate desiccation. That took us into draft 3.5 (right).

I'm finding that both the art and text in my self-publishing go through three major drafts followed by one or two touch-up mini-drafts. Some writers do two or only one major draft; some will edit and re-edit for years in the hopeless pursuit of perfection. If I can get to 90% to 95% of perfection in three drafts plus spare change, I'm a happy camper. That's a schedule I can live with and feel acceptably productive.

In any event, there you go -- another cover evolution that shows how something awesome can emerge from good intentions gone horribly wrong...with the proper professional help.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Stay Cold," Spawn of Monkeys

The three questions I get most often from people about my writing are:

1. Where do you come up with the ideas?
2. How do you find the time to write?
3. Where'd you learn how to self-publish?

In reverse order, #3 is easy to answer. There's really nothing to it, at least there isn't when you're publishing ebooks through Amazon. Pretty much everything you need to know, at least for getting started, is here: https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/help?topicId=A2VHRJZXET0TWT.

As for finding the time to write...what can I say? It feels like there's never time to write. I usually take an hour in the morning, between getting the kids off to school and starting my day job at 9:00, to work on my novel. But sometimes that gets hijacked, as when a critical rush happens on my day job or, as happened this morning, I'm publishing a new story and minor issues need to be fixed before I can promote the new work.

Where do ideas come from? Anywhere. Everywhere. Stephen King has joked about this several times. It's one of those impossible questions to answer. I had a Religious Studies teacher in high school who, when discussing meditation, said that the mind was like a monkey, constantly swinging and bouncing about inside your skull. The object of meditation is to still the monkey.

If I twist his metaphor a bit, thoughts are like monkeys. We all have these crazed troops of monkeys constantly performing their gymnastics in our heads. Some monkeys sit munching on grass in the background. Some swing right up to the glass and beat on their chest, demanding your attention. And sometimes, monkeys will be monkeys and do the Wild Thing. I find that most monkeys are private and carry on their hot monkey love out of sight in the bushes. But they do commingle, and every so often -- bam! There on the ground you've got a new, steaming baby monkey.

New ideas are like new monkeys. Most will never amount to anything. Oh, sure, they're fuzzy and cute, but it's not like they'll master sign language, compose Hamlet on the monkey exhibit typewriter, or lead an ape insurrection that wipes out humanity.

Except every so often, under a blue moon on a third Thursday, one does. One in every million or so conjugal visits between concepts yields the stem cell of a story. Like the swapping of monkey DNA, the process is largely random and unpredictable. But it happens. The trick is to be paying attention when that special baby monkey hits the ground, because the primates in your skull are an inattentive, rambunctious lot. No sooner is that new idea spawned than they're off banana hunting or foraging for fur lice, and little junior is long forgotten.

A writer will recognize a special baby monkey on sight. It creates an electric jolt in the hindbrain unlike any other. With the story I just published today, "Stay Cold," one such jolt literally arrived out of nowhere. I was at my desk, working on some article about computing. I'd been reading zombie lit for a few weeks while working on "The Followers," but I wasn't thinking about it then. Perhaps my eye fell across the weather report (it was March), and I thought about how unseasonably warm the winter had been. We'd had no snow. Wouldn't it be weird if my kids got snow on Spring Break?

And just like that, the baby monkey smacked to earth with a wet plop. As I sat here looking at my computer screens, I imagined a kid making a snow angel in a massive amount of snow -- so much snow that virtually everything had been buried under it. And frozen inside all that snow, just a few feet under the kid making his snow angel, there were bloody zombies, waiting. Just waiting...for the weather to get a bit warmer.

The image struck me as sublimely creepy. This monkey was special. I just knew it intuitively.

Central Elementary School in Roundup, MT
In any case, I immediately started poking at the idea. I needed a setting, someplace small and fairly isolated but still with modern amenities. A few minutes on Wikipedia led me to Roundup, MT, with a population of about 2,000. Thanks to Google Maps Street View, I was able to click through the streets and confirm that the hospital and shops where single-story. Central Elementary fit what I was looking for exactly. I found the house I wanted in the southeast corner of town. As happens so strangely often with writing, when the story is meant to be, the details all seem to snap into place with eerie convenience. Special monkeys do that.

However, not everything comes easily in those initial stages. By the time I finished first draft, I was left with a kid who had no purpose. He was just there, in this crazy, terrible environment, yes, but otherwise he was just floating through the events. I hadn't really asked myself who Tommy was or what he wanted.

In that first draft, Tommy was ten years old, which seemed natural because my eldest is currently that age. But my best friend and editor, Baron Schuyler, astutely pointed out that ten was too young for some of the actions in this story. Tommy had to be more like 12 or 13. The idea of 13 sparked another bout of monkey business in my mind, and only seconds later, I knew that Tommy was Jewish. He'd just turned 13. These events weren't just random; they were his trial of manhood. Suddenly, I had a real story about a real kid in an unreal, incredibly terrible situation.

Enough said. I'll be back soon with a look at how the cover for "Stay Cold" evolved. For now, I hope you'll bundle up, give the tale a read, and have a good shudder.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sci-Guys Short Shorts: Lacuna and Serial

Wanna hear four guys rip Dark Shadows a new one? Then check out the newly posted Sci-Guys podcast #098. And if you want to stick around for my Short Shorts reviews of David Adams's Lacuna stories and Blake Crouch's "Serial," look for it to start at the 41:00 mark. If you happen to be challenged of hearing or simply impatient, here's what I had to say:

*   *   *

Hey, this is William, and something’s been bugging me. You know how everybody says that self-published ebooks are junk? Well, here’s some news. Remember Hugh Howey’s Wool, the self-published Kindle book I talked about last time? It turns out that 20th Century Fox is now turning Wool into a movie, with both Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian, the guy who won an Academy for his Schindler’s List screenplay, attached to the project. So for all those who think that short fiction ebooks are crap, think again. If you keep your ears and eyes open, you’ll find loads of awesome fiction out there – no big publisher required.

Case in point, check out this 27-year-old guy from Darwin, Australia named David Adams. He’s a software programmer by day who’s been writing Star Trek fan fiction for years – just for the hell of it. Last year, he started cranking out a story series called Lacuna. Check it out at lacunaverse.com. Long story short, you’ve got aliens blowing away 50 million people because humans developed a technology they’re not supposed to have, and this is the story of humanity fighting back. Now, I haven’t read the two Lacuna novels that Adams has out, because I’m ridiculously busy. But I did buy the two 99-cent short stories, and this is my point. His short stories told me two things: Adams can spin a good tale, and this Lacuna universe is a place I want to explore. I now have his books on my wish list because I was impressed with his short stories, which functioned as sort of a teaser. This is something you rarely saw in the old world of print. You don’t have to risk 5 or 10 bucks on a paperback blurb anymore. Put a dollar on the table. Take a chance. You might just discover a new voice and a new world filled with adventure, moral dilemmas, great science, and badass aliens.

Now, out of the thousands of new ebook authors out there, where else do you start? Usually word of mouth, just like me to you, right here. But I also keep up on several ebook-related blogs and forums. Through one of these, I found Blake Crouch and the short story "Serial," which he co-wrote with Joe Konrath. In a nutshell, we know that hitchhiking can be dangerous. The guy who picks you up could be a serial killer. But so could the hitchhiker, right? This story asks: What happens when the driver and hitcher are both serial killers? For five bucks you can get Serial and nine other short stories in Crouch’s insanely good collection, Fully Loaded. [Edit: It's four bucks. What is it with me and ebook prices?] You might call this suspense or thriller fiction rather than horror, but I would argue that monsters come in all shapes and sizes. To me, the unsuspected monsters strolling right next to you on the sidewalk can be more terrifying than anything covered in slime. Horror can happen wherever you find cracks in reality.

So... Sci-fi. Suspense. Horror. Self-published and totally awesome. Go get it. Again, this is William Van Winkle, and thanks for checking out my Short Shorts.

The Road Trip That Became a "General Invasion"

I met Baron Schuyler when we were high school seniors, way back in 1988. It was at a poetry workshop at Reed College (I think). I remember absolutely nothing about this workshop except sitting at a conference table with Baron on the opposite side of it. He was even skinnier and paler than me (no easy feat back then), long-haired, and clearly the only kid at the table with a clue how to string five decent words together.

Because we each seemed to make some impression on the other, we gravitated together two years later as Portland State University freshmen majoring in English, and we've been close friends ever since. He was the best man at my wedding, and we've been witness to each other's victories and stupidities for over two decades.  Early in our college career, we started making an annual trip from Portland to Ashland, OR to take in two or three plays the town's Shakespeare Festival and work on our respective -- or joint -- fiction projects. Over the years, we've started a lot of such projects, and some of them remain simmering on the back burner, too good in concept to fade completely into the night. Like so many other would-be writing teams, we've spent years getting together, enjoying the collaboration process, but inevitably getting derailed by the other time demands of our lives.

Figuring in lunch, the trip from Portland to Ashland takes about five hours each way. Our traditional pattern is that four of these five hours will be spent bitching about work and women troubles, and about one is spent on writing, which explains why we've never published anything. But we've sure had a lot of good times along the way.

Our 2011 trip was different. For one thing, it was the year we hit middle age and I got serious about self-publishing fiction. ("Good God, I'm 40 years old with no novels to my name," blah blah blah.) I don't think either of us had an undue amount of complaining to do about women on this trip. The stars lined up a certain way as we sped southward down I-5, and something slightly magical happened. The story that would become "General Invasion" (originally called "General Contact" until Baron thought of the better twist) was born.

I'll let Baron describe it...

I don't remember exactly what made me think of this concept, but I'm pretty sure it was after seeing a snippet of the movie Battle Los Angeles. I remember thinking to myself something along the lines of, "Another alien invasion story where everybody tries to blow each other up. It's always that or mysterious abductions." It seemed to me that almost all alien contact stories fall back on one of these two motifs, with only the very occasional exception. Star Trek had a classic exception in its first contact between Humans and Vulcans.

But even Star Trek wasn't immune to the allure of the cliche. I recalled an episode in which aliens were abducting Riker for medical experiments. (IMDB identifies this episode as "Schisms" from season six.) But I also recalled another episode with Riker, where he took on the role of alien invader. Fans of the show will recall that Federation officers often had minor surgery to make them blend in with unsuspecting alien populations, allowing them to obey the Prime Directive. In this episode ("First Contact" from season four), Riker is injured and his human anatomy is discovered by the alien civilization. He tries to escape captivity and he is offered a way out by a lascivious nurse who will help him if he agrees to a sexual tryst with her. This was done rather comically, but as a throwaway line.

Later, I somehow had reason to think about all of this in relation to online pornography. I can't remember why exactly. But it may be because I work at the library and we occasionally have people with poorly defined boundaries come in and view pornography on our public computers. (I mean, c'mon. Really? In public?) We have the annoying task of requesting that they not view it in the library. (Or else.)

At any rate, I wondered, "What if the alien abductions were not for medical experiments or ultimate world domination, but were the work of intergalactic pornographers making stag films?" This seemed rather comical to me. As such, I mentioned it jokingly to William.

Surprisingly, William thought this might make a good story, a sharp and irreverent comic piece. We spent most of our annual trip to Ashland trying to hash it out. Our first attempts focused on a female main character. We kept trying different permutations, but everything came off as crass or tasteless or politicized or politically correct, etc. Most of all, none of it was especially funny.

Just when I was saying that maybe it was best as a passing joke (and not a story), William hit on the brilliant idea of having the main character be a guy. And not just any guy -- a general in the US Army. This struck me as hilariously funny. The idea of it had me laughing so much that I am glad I didn't wreck the car as I was driving us home. He had been working on a story with Roswell connections and linked it to that. It all seemed to fall into place.

William did the hard work of creating a first draft. I had the easy task of doing the first rewrite. It went smoothly after that, with only minor changes and edits.

While most of our rides home tend to be a bit morose -- no one likes ending a vacation -- we laughed almost non-stop for 300 miles. I used the voice-to-text function on my Android smartphone to try and dictate notes into a Google Doc, and only later did I realize how much of the file was gibberish. But enough of the phrases were sufficiently intelligible to trigger my memory a few months later, and I wrote the initial draft in awkward 15- to 60-minute blocks over several weeks. If the final draft strikes you as funny and coherent, you can thank Baron, because those elements were largely absent in my initial sprawling mess.

Honestly, I don't know if "General Invasion" works or not. I'm too close to it to judge objectively. I still believe that humor and horror are the two most difficult genres in which to write well, because you're trying to elicit a more visceral emotional response from the reader. I'll let you decide whether or not we were successful.

For me, even if the story never sells a copy or gathers positive reviews, I'll consider it a glowing accomplishment that's been 20 years in the making. Baron and I finally completed a piece of fiction that (I hope) was ready for a widespread audience. Friendship has no requisite purpose. No two people ever say, "We're going to be friends in order to..." But if there ever were a purpose behind Baron's and my friendship, I think we would agree that it would be to write together. There's an inexplicable joy in the collaborative process that helps keep us together decade after decade. Being able to turn that collaboration into something tangible, something that can be shared with the world, may not be essential, but it sure feels great and long overdue.

Here's to hoping the next one won't take as long...

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sci-Guys Short Shorts Review: Hugh Howey's Wool

It's that time again! If you're interested in some lively, crass, and hilarious discussion about this summer's upcoming movies, give Sci-Guys Podcast #96 a listen. Of course, if you want to skip straight to my quick Short Shorts review of Hugh Howey's awesome sci-fi story, Wool, then please either fast forward to 45:20 in the podcast or, well...here it is:

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We all love post-apocalypse stories with nuclear monsters, roving zombies, or packs of rabid marauders out to pillage and destroy. Wool, by Hugh Howey, is not one of those stories. In this post-apocalypse, the world, as visible through four surface cameras, seems to be a seething, gray, toxic nothing. What’s left of humanity lives in underground missile silos, and these cameras are the only views onto that world. But the cameras grow filmy and obscured over time. The few who are banned from the silo are tasked with cleaning the cameras with wool before they wander off to die...maybe.

This is the story of the silo’s sheriff, Holston, who still mourns for his wife. She discovered secrets about the silo’s past that had to be investigated, even if it meant her death on the outside. Now, Holston has to see if she was right about the outside, because he can no longer stand to be on the inside.

We all enjoy getting lost in worlds of fiction. Look at The Lord of the Rings. That’s an amazing, fascinating world, right? But in terms of character development, Middle Earth may not be a zero, but it’s really close. The genius of Hugh Howey is that he builds the world of Wool through character. In science fiction, it’s easy to get caught up in the big concepts, the sweeping time scales. But without character, without real people who reflect you, every world is flat.

Hugh Howey is my hero. He’s just an ordinary guy who started self-publishing the stories he felt compelled to write. The story he had the least faith in and practically ignored was the one that caught fire with the public, spawned a series, and is now courting offers from the BBC and movie studios. And this guy is so down to earth and cool in a really quiet, caring way. I defy you not to love Hugh Howey.

Start with Wool 1 and see for yourself. Like every Wool installment, it’s 99 cents. [Edit: The first three are 99 cents. They edge upward after that as novella lengths increase.] If you’re really cheap or don’t believe me, all of Wool 1 is contained in the free sample of the five-part Wool Omnibus. Read it. You’ll be addicted.

I am William Van Winkle, and thanks for checking out my short shorts.