Dave Justus is author of the first and many other games in the Lifeline series from Big Fish—including the eponymous original; Lifeline 2: Bloodline; Lifeline: Silent Night; and Lifeline: Halfway To Infinity—which have enjoyed nearly 7 million worldwide downloads to date. He is also the co-writer, with Lilah Sturges, of the comic books Everafter: From The Pages Of Fables; Public Relations; Fables: The Wolf Among Us; and more.
Lifeline games are games, but they're also novels. Part of the growing "interactive fiction" genre, the games are entirely text-based, with the reader making choices throughout. It goes like this: A stranded astronaut contacts you, asking for help in the form of a person to talk to as well as ask for advice. Sort of like if "The Martian" were a game instead of a movie, and you got to talk to Mark Watney the entire time he's stranded on Mars.
Lisa: How did you get involved in writing the Lifeline series? Did you have any background in the game industry? What was the genesis for the first game?
Dave: I came to Lifeline in a sort of roundabout way. The original game was being developed by Three Minute Games, a tiny three-man skunkworks within Big Fish. They'd had some minor successes, but they'd come up with the concept for Lifeline and wanted its release to coincide with the release of the Apple Watch. They offered the job to my friend Daryl Gregory -- who is one of the best writers I've ever read, and I thought as much before I ever met him -- but he was too booked to do it, so he very kindly suggested me for the position. Three Minute took a chance on me (I'd barely been published at that point), and gave me tremendous freedom under a very tight deadline. They knew they wanted about three days of gameplay, a sci-fi story with a nongendered protagonist in a "choose your own adventure" style, and they needed it in five weeks. Beyond that, I was free to do whatever I wanted... which was both amazing and daunting.
I had no background in games whatsoever, but I honestly think, in this case, that worked to my advantage. I'd been an avid NES gamer in my childhood, had spent plenty of time with Infocom games like Hitchhiker's Guide (whose DNA you can certainly see in Lifeline), and had played several Playstation games growing up, but the last one I'd really sunk any amount of time into was Tomb Raider 2, back in college. Once I graduated, I had very little "mad money," and I chose to apply that to comics (which I've been collecting since I was eight) rather than video games. But in the case of Lifeline, I think it worked out very well, because I wrote the game purely as a conversation. I wasn't thinking in terms of "power-ups" or acquiring weapons or typical video game structures; rather, I wanted it to feel as much as possible like the Player was receiving texts from a real human being. And the feedback we've gotten has largely indicated that that's exactly what people feel when they're playing: They're not controlling a sprite, they're talking to an actual person.
Lisa: How much text is in these games? As much as a typical novel, say 80,000 words, at least? Or far fewer? Also, you say they wanted three days of play, but I note there are breaks when Taylor is busy. What's the breakout between "idle" time and actual play? How did you figure out how long the breaks should be? What's the longest? The shortest?
Dave: The first Lifeline game is a little over 50,000 words -- more in the range of a novella, or possibly a YA novel. Because of the way I ended up structuring the game (in that I didn't really know what I was doing and wanted to give people the most bang for their buck), a Player who makes it to the end of the game alive will actually have seen the bulk of the game's text. Hopefully no passages that contradict any others, obviously... but I wanted to put as much info as possible on the screen.
Lifeline 2: Bloodline had almost twice as many words. It was very freeing for me, because I felt like I could go into so much more depth on Arika's character, her world, and her quests... but it was a lot to ask of the team on the other end, specifically in terms of translation to other languages. For subsequent games, we've looked for a happy medium in terms of word count: not so much that it causes panic attacks at the Big Fish offices, but enough that the authors can stretch their legs a bit and the Players can, we hope, feel satisfied with the end result.
The "idle" time was essential to Three Minute's concept of a real-time conversation; it takes time for the characters to walk to a new location, or to eat a meal, or to rest for a bit. The first "long" break in the original Lifeline comes when Taylor sleeps on the first night -- the Player must give Taylor some information that creates a life-or-death scenario overnight, and we wanted Players to be tense, anxious to see whether their advice had been Taylor's doom or salvation. I believe that the longest break is six hours (for a character to sleep); delays can be as short as a couple of seconds, if we want to employ them to help with the timing of a joke or something. I originally feared that the breaks would be a turn-off to Players, that no one would want to wait an hour while Taylor walked around a crater. And indeed, after one death, the games give you the option to switch off the "real-time" mode and play with no delays whatsoever. But what we found was that, overwhelmingly, the majority of Players chose to switch back to "real-time" after trying "fast" mode. The preference for the delays is considerable.
Lisa: Let me return to what you said about wanting players to feel as if they're talking to an actual person instead of "controlling a sprite," and how your lack of game-industry experience felt like an advantage to you. This might rankle seasoned game writers and narrative designers, since we're quite serious about our craft and its tradition beyond power-ups and what's "typical." Have you since become part of the game-writing community, instead of a sort of self-described outsider? Or do you still see yourself that way? I'm asking because text adventures in particular have a history and set of best practices that predate what we think of as video games today.
Dave: Please believe me when I say that the last thing I intended here was to cause offense. When I say "typical" structures, I only meant the things that I, personally, thought of as aspects common to NES and arcade games, based on my own history with them. As I mentioned, I'd also played many text games back on my old Apple IIe, and I was primarily drawing from my (admittedly fairly hazy) memories of those while trying to construct Lifeline.
I would definitely still consider myself an outsider when it comes to game writing. I'm in Texas -- nowhere near Big Fish or Three Minute, out on the West Coast -- and I don't wind up getting to attend all the expos and conventions with them. I would be very interested if you could point me to resources for the best practices that you mention -- I perpetually feel like I sort of stumbled into success with Lifeline, and I keep waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, "We know you're just faking it. It's time for you to leave." That day is going to suck.
Lisa: Great answer ;). I'll send you some links later on so you can join the game-writing party! Next question: Older players or those younger who've discovered the series anew might compare Lifeline to the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which were first popular in the 80s (I was a huge fan). Were those an inspiration for you?
Dave: They absolutely were. I was a voracious reader as a child -- the sort who would read the back of cereal boxes, just because they had words on them. My parents and grandparents, much to their credit, always indulged this behavior, so I had shelves and shelves of books, including probably two dozen or so Choose Your Own Adventure titles. The one that stands out in my mind, to this day, is Inside UFO 54-40, credited to Edward Packard -- it was a terrifying science fiction story, bleak to the point of nihilism, in which all paths led to defeat, and the best ending could never actually be reached. And it blew my tiny mind. It was the bridge between kids' books and adult literature for me. Once that book had broken me, I could not have cared less about Beezus and Ramona; I was ready for the Overlook Hotel and moon monoliths and Nadsat.
Lisa: I first came across your work back when I was with Big Fish, as manager of the narrative design team. How did the relationship between Big Fish and 3-Minute Games come about, in as much as you can share with readers?
Dave: I'm probably not the best person to answer this one. My understanding is that Three Minute were operating as a skunkworks under the auspices of Big Fish, coming up with all sorts of games like Feed Your Monster and Poll Party. Basically, they were testing different styles of games, different pay structures, seeing which combinations worked best. They had the idea for Lifeline -- from its style to its pay structure to its length, everything came from them. They had done the work in order to make the determination that this was the best admixture of elements... and they got it very, very right. How much I contributed to that, it's hard to say; they had laid the groundwork for me so well, all I had to do was step in and not completely fall on my face. I'm grateful every day that they set me up to succeed, and I'm happy that I was able to deliver something that achieved what they were hoping for.
Lisa: Let's talk about the structure for a Lifeline game. Branching choices can quickly lead to a very complex structure unless you create small branches that loop back to a main narrative, and/or employ the use of stats to track choices. How do you plot out the varying narratives in Lifeline?
Dave: The "complex structure" that you mention is something I ran into very quickly when I was working on the first Lifeline. Even when you only provide binary choices -- which, so far, is all we've done -- those branches can quickly grow out of control as each one doubles, then doubles again, until from a single node you've created a mountain. I had to train myself to weave the elements back together, to keep things from ballooning out of control. When I took on the original assignment, I thought, "Oh, this will be just like writing a short story." But it's not; it's like writing thousands of very, very short stories, of a few sentences each. It took me a painfully long time to make that distinction, but once I did, I was able to realize where I'd gone wrong, and start to plot out "nodes" where the threads were drawn back together. That made my work so, so much easier.
I'm not a coder by nature. I use Twine as the basis for these games (and then a lot of proprietary processes happen afterward, most of which are beyond my comprehension), and in that program I do my best to branch and reconnect smoothly. It's a tremendously useful GUI for people like me, people who need their hand held throughout the process. No matter how carefully I've plotted things in advance, every Lifeline game has led me in unexpected directions; the story that wants to be told is, without exception, better and more interesting than the story I lay out at the beginning. I trust those feelings, trust that when Taylor or Arika or whomever pulls the narrative in an unintended direction, that I'm getting a real sense of what the story should be, instead of forcing it down avenues that aren't true to the characters. (This, by the way, is a fantastic way to drive the rest of the development team insane.)
Lisa: What's an example of a node? Also, did those driving the process have a sense of what came before so you weren't all reinventing the wheel? What you're describing here reminds me of the awesome discussion over at Choice of Games, where they do a great job of teaching newbies how to avoid this kind of ballooning while preserving the need for meaningful choices.
Dave: I think of nodes as "have-to" moments in the game. If, say, by the end of a day, Arika has to learn a certain piece of info, encounter a certain prop, have an opportunity to eat, and fight a specific foe, then I have four nodes for that day. If she can't move on without acquiring an object or having a conversation, then I know that, no matter how wildly things balloon, all roads must lead back to a single point. The order in which they're encountered may or may not matter, but generally speaking, these are the crucial passages; the Player's decisions upon hitting these nodes will have a major effect on what follows in the game.
Lisa: How many different endings could players get in a typical Lifeline game? How do you make sure those endings make sense for the previous choices made in the game?
Dave: Generally, there are a few deaths along the way. These are paths where the Player has made an egregious mistake, or else has willfully decided not to aid the protagonist. Those are, of course, the "bad" endings -- no one should be proud of killing their hero. Then there are the "good" endings, where the Player has done most things right, and has achieved an ending that is satisfactory, although not the best one could hope for. The hope is that the Player will feel good about these... but will still have a nagging sense that they should return to the game, and work for the best possible ending. And we'll tell you when you've achieved that; we want Players to know when they've gotten all the items, or defeated all the villains, or done the best they can. I write stories with Pyrrhic victories, sometimes -- blame Inside UFO 54-40 -- but there's always a "best" ending, and that's the canon ending that leads to the next game in the series.
Lisa: Does this ever backfire? It strikes me as different than most casual gameplay, where player character deaths are generally avoided. Do you lose some players by opting for Pyrrhic victories?
Dave: I had that fear at the outset, but to the relief of all of us, the Player reactions to character deaths seem to be a deepening of involvement, not an abandoning of the game. It seems to largely be the case that, if a Player loses Taylor by pushing the character too hard or by supplying incorrect information, there's generally a sense of culpability in the death that makes the Player want to try harder the next time. I've seen dozens, maybe hundreds, of people on social media expressing genuine grief and sadness over character deaths in the Lifeline games.
Lisa: (This last one's for my stepson, who loved the first game when it went viral at his high school a few years ago.) You set up Taylor as a gender-neutral character, an interesting choice. Can you talk about your reasons for that? My stepson notes that most of his classmates assumed Taylor was either female (most of the women did this) or split evenly between male or female (mostly guys).
Dave: The gender-neutrality of Taylor's character came from Three Minute Games, but I thought it was a fantastic idea. At that time, it was easier than I thought it would be to write such a character -- when gender signifiers are removed, you realize how similar a kick-ass male and female protagonist actually are. It's grown increasingly difficult, as Halfway To Infinity introduces a doppelgänger Taylor, to keep the pronouns correct -- but I'm happy to face down that challenge. Seeing so much fan art for the character has made me realize just how much room we've left for interpretation. I don't consider that there's a "right" answer at all. People who know me have told me that they see a lot of me in Taylor... but for every argument for "male," I see another one, just as convincing, for "female." I love that I don't have a definitive answer. I hope that I never do. I hope that I can continue to write a character that resonates with everyone who reads it.
You can download the game to your favorite device. See the Big Fish Lifeline page for more info.
March was a busy month, as I had two virtual book tours running at the same time--with participation from a whopping 21 blogs. Partners in Crime sponsored the first tour, and then blogger "CMash" added a side tour when she chose me for Author of the Month.
The two giveaways drew huge crowds, for a total of 1,169 entries. Four participants snagged Amazon gift certificates, two received signed paperbacks in the mail, and nine won ebook copies of the focus book for the tour, Cat in the Flock. A huge thanks to the army of book bloggers who stumped for the Dreamslippers Series, and congrats to the winners.
Besides the giveaways, the tour had several components: guest blogs, interviews (including a live radio show), reviews, and spotlights.
I've very much enjoyed having authors as guests on my own blog for the "What's the Motive?" series, so it's nice to keep the karma flowing by serving as a guest myself. Per the book bloggers' prompts, I delved into the inspiration behind the Dreamslippers series as well as my current work-in-progress, in addition to other meaty topics.
For Books, Dreams, Life, I talked about how the years of work I did as a narrative designer in the video-game industry shaped my intention for the Dreamslippers Series: "That experience—five years spent fighting cliché—drove me to create a kick-ass grandmother/granddaughter duo based on the real women in my life."
For CMash Reads, I wrote three guest posts. In the first, I reveal the premise for my current work-in-progress, a standalone novel that is quite a departure from the Dreamslippers Series. There's also a sneak-peak excerpt of the opening chapter. In another post, I discuss the book-body connection, drawing on my own struggles and victories in yoga and dance as I wrote the series: "The experience forced me to acknowledge limitations, as well as the need to heal." The last is a reflection on my love of "quirky" characters and where that penchant might come from: "My favorite females were made indomitably strong by the challenges they’d faced, and if that forge wrought them into a shape that didn’t fit any mold, we were all the better for it."
I gave four interviews, but the most memorable was definitely the Blog Talk Radio interview with Fran Lewis. Fran asked excellent questions based on a very careful, thorough reading of Cat in the Flock, making me think of the book in a new way now that it's been nearly three years since its release.
For the Author of the Month interview, CMash demanded something of me that no one's asked before: "Tell us why we should read this book." Read the answer here.
For Cozy Up With Kathy, I answer the question I get a lot these days: Will you continue the series? I could tell you here on my own blog, but Granny Grace says I should send you to Kathy's blog for the answer. It's only fair!
The toughest question came from the Writers and Authors blogger, who asked if I discovered anything during my work on Cat in the Flock that was unexpected. The answer is yes: "The biggest thing I learned writing Cat in the Flock was the difference between a mystery story that works for a game and what works for a novel."
It's always nice to get reviews on a tour, and this one brought in new opinions from 14 bloggers. Here's a quick snapshot.
Blog #1: CMash Reads
Money quote: "The suspense in this book had me turning the pages. The plot contains spirituality, betrayals, truths, lies, murder, and a rekindled love. The thought of the dream slipping was intriguing. And a shocking ending."
Blog #2: Laura's Interests
Stars: None given
Money quote: "The women take the roles of strength and power in this series. Accept it." (Hands down my favorite quote of the tour.)
Blog #3: Reading to Distraction
Money quote: "It was also refreshing to see the characters discuss the limitations of such a skill rather than having a solution to the mystery conveniently come up in a dream."
Blog #4: A Dream Within a Dream
Stars: None given
Money quote: "Lots of details and vivid descriptions brought the story to life in my mind."
Blog #5: Avid Reader
Money quote: "As a Christian, I was a bit concerned about the part of the plot dealing with a very conservative church. I think Brunette did a fine job portraying the culture of a church when the leadership has gone wrong."
Blog #6: Wall-to-Wall Books
Stars: None given
Money quote: "I have already decided that I am going to have to read all up-coming books in this new series!"
Blog #7: Bookishly Me
Money quote: "I really enjoyed seeing Cat develop throughout the story and I cannot wait to see what she will encounter next."
Blog #8: Just Reviews
Stars: None given
Money quote: "Lisa Brunette takes us deep inside the world of dreams and hopefully Cat will find her way to her own salvation and not remain CAT IN THE FLOCK."
Blog #9: The Book Adventures of Emily
Money quote: "Cat McCormick is such a great main character."
Blog #10: Books Direct
Stars: None given
Money quote: "The characters are interesting and likable, with full backstories. There are plenty of religious references, but it never feels as if the author is preaching or imposing her religious beliefs on the reader. There's even some romance for Cat - and Grandma Grace! A very satisfying read."
Blog #11: Mystery Suspense Reviews (Audiobook)
Stars: None given
Money quote: "It was my first listen to Angel Clark as narrator, but I’ll be looking for more. She has just the right voice for Cat, did well distinguishing the voices of different characters, and read at an excellent pace."
Blog #12: Martha's Bookshelf
Stars: None given
Money quote: "I recommend this to readers who enjoy mystery with a touch of supernatural ability."
Blog #13: Wall-to-Wall Books (Audiobook)
Money quote: "I thought the reader's voice was perfect for Cat."
Blog #14: Cozy Up With Kathy
Stars: None given
Money quote: "Although the topics involved in CAT IN THE FLOCK are heavy and filled with gravitas, the book has a lightness and a joy within."
These bloggers posted an excerpt, links, and the giveaways.
Now that I've done tours for three books and a boxed set, I've come to think of many of these bloggers as true partners in crime, beyond the tour! Most give of their time and energy without any other return besides the chance to read and talk about books. God love 'em.
Images courtesy of Pixabay.
Debut author Martha Crites is a fellow finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award. She handles the tricky topic of mental illness with great care and intelligence in her mystery novel Grave Disturbance. Here she discusses how motive can shift and change over the course of the writing project.
Lisa asks, “What’s the Motive?”
I can only answer, “Motives change.”
Did I intend to take on the stigma of mental illness when I wrote my first mystery, Grave Disturbance? Not at all. I just wanted to see if I could write a novel. So, in the time-honored tradition of write what you know, I gave my sleuth a job in the mental health field, like me. Not my exact job, but one a little more exciting. Grace Vaccaro is a mental health evaluator who sees people in the field to determine if they need to be hospitalized as a danger to self or others. I now know that writing a novel is a big project, and my motives have changed over time.
Here’s what happened: When Grave Disturbance was first published, I found myself, like all new authors, needing a little elevator speech to tell about my book. Something like: After a filmmaker working on a documentary about native land rights is murdered, mental health professional Grace Vaccaro realizes that a woman she evaluated may have been a witness. Grace and Liz must sift truth from delusion to unmask the murderer before he kills again.
I had no idea that I would observe the stigma of mental illness first hand when I began to mention my protagonist’s career as a mental health evaluator. People became quiet and uncomfortable at the topic. So, I gave a lot of thought to how to talk about it and decided to mention the issue of stigma up front, at the beginning. Somehow, it helped my listeners find a new lens through which to view the story.
Since Grave Disturbance came out, I often give presentations at libraries. We talk about how I wanted to portray Liz, the character with mental illness, as fully human, a person with talents and hopes, dreams and disappointments. But more than that, I tell them about my current novel-in-progress, which is now taking the stigma head on. I tell stories about the inspiration for a character in my work-in-progress: Marsha Linehan, the University of Washington therapist who bravely faced stigma by telling the story of her own illness to the New York Times after years of silence.
The result? Now instead of silence, audience members ask questions about psychosis, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and more. They tell me about their experiences with family members. We have a conversation I never anticipated, a conversation that is helping me form my second Grace Vaccaro novel with a much clearer idea of my motive.
What I love about the mystery genre is that it can combine entertainment with important issues like mental health, homelessness, and the history of treatment of Native Americans in our region–all in a fast-paced novel that keeps the reader turning pages. And afterward we can talk about it.
Martha Crites has worked in community and inpatient mental health field for twenty years and taught at the Quileute Tribal School on the Washington coast. Grave Disturbance was a finalist for the 2016 Nancy Pearl Award.
Readers of my Dreamslippers Series will undoubtedly recognize kindred spirits of Amazing Grace in Fling! Author Lily Iona Mackenzie talks about the real-life inspiration for her eccentric characters in today's What's the Motive post.
Lily Iona Mackenzie:
I began writing Fling! because I was curious about my mother’s mother, someone I had never met. Early in the 20th century, my grandfather, a former schoolmaster in Scotland’s highlands, immigrated to Calgary, Canada, hoping to find a better life there for himself and his family. Meanwhile, WWI broke out. A passenger ship was torpedoed, preventing his wife and five kids from joining him for seven years. When they did, my grandmother couldn’t adjust to the brutal winters or to her husband’s behavior.
After being in Calgary for a year, my grandmother moved out, refusing to put up with my grandfather’s verbal and physical abuse. She found work as a housekeeper for a wealthy family. Soon, she and her boss became lovers, and he took her to Mexico City with him. When he returned, she didn’t. Some time later, my grandfather received a letter from a Mexican priest that she had died there.
Though I never met my grandmother, she was a strong, ghostly presence throughout my childhood. Who was this woman whose genes I shared? How had she found the courage in the early ‘20s to flee a difficult situation? And what did she do during those years in Mexico City? What motivated her to leave her kids and travel to Mexico, a country very different from what she had experienced in largely protestant Canada and Scotland? And what effect did her behavior have on those left behind, in particular her daughter and granddaughter?
These were the questions that sent me off on my quest to uncover this mysterious woman. I wanted to recreate what life might have been like for her once she left Canada. That impulse brought in a number of other characters that inhabit the novel. So while 90-year-old Bubbles and 57-year-old Feather are the main focus initially, very loosely based on my mother and myself, it’s Heather, my imagined grandmother, who is at the novel’s heart.
When I started out, I planned to write a lyrical family saga. But Feather, an aging hippie, and her fun-loving mother Bubbles soon took over the narrative and brought their own distinctive humor with them, with plenty of hilarious moments as members of this family reunite in Mexico.
Feather and Bubbles’ journey begins when Bubbles receives mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.
But they also make unexpected discoveries in Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist. Feather gains a sense of who her mother really was. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known, ancient rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.
Unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. She doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in her. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams, one of the things I discovered from writing this novel.
For me, Fling! turned out to be a meditation on mothers, daughters, and art. It suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what all the characters discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does. And I’m hoping that my actual grandmother partook of it, too.
Lily Iona MacKenzie has published poetry, short fiction, and essays in over 150 Canadian and American publications. Her poetry collection All This was published in October 2011. Her novel Fling! was published in July 2015. Bone Songs, another novel, will be published in 2017. Freefall: A Divine Comedy, will be released in 2018.
Karen Musser Nortman is a recipient of the Amazing Grace Award for Outstanding Women Over 40. She's also a fellow indieBRAG medallion winner. The latest book in her Frannie Shoemaker Campground Mystery series is really out there, as she explains for the "What's the Motive?" series.
Karen Musser Nortman:
Any time you have amateur sleuths as the main characters in mysteries, it is necessary to create a motive for those characters to become involved in the investigation. In police procedurals or any thriller or mystery where the main character is in law enforcement, it's his or her job to solve the crime. But ever since Nancy Drew and Jane Marple, the author of 'cozy mysteries' must come up with a credible motive for the amateur sleuth to investigate. It requires enough of a suspension of disbelief for the reader to accept that the same person gets involved in murders over and over. How many people have said, "I sure wouldn't want to be Jessica Fletcher's neighbor in Cabot Cove"? So there must be a motive for, in my books, Frannie Shoemaker being a busybody.
Last March, we took a camping trip through Texas and New Mexico. After an overnight at Ft. Stockton in west Texas, we were headed north to Roswell on our way to Santa Fe. Traffic seemed sparse until we came over one of the few hills and saw a line of cars stretching up to a police road block. As we worked our way up to the front, it became obvious that they were searching vehicles—we assumed for drugs or contraband. However, the patrolman explained two felons had escaped while being transported from Santa Fe to Los Cruces, and they suspected they were either being helped or had stowed away in a vehicle.
What does this have to do with motivation in my books? Our camper had been locked since we left Ft. Stockton, so the patrolman said it wasn't necessary to search it. But as we continued on, I thought about the four storage compartments accessible from the outside. Sometimes we forgot to lock one of those, and two of them were large enough to hold a person.
A new book in the Frannie Shoemaker Campground Mysteries began to form in my head. After all, it was a long drive. The main characters are two couples who camp together and occasionally stumble over dead bodies. I tend to have titles before I have stories, and combining of the idea of a stowaway in a camper and the UFO culture around Roswell gave me the title: The Space Invader.
Why would my little group be hanging out around Roswell? One of the four main characters, Mickey Ferraro, is the comedian of the crew—sort of a Don Rickles type—a retired English teacher, guitarist, cook—in other words, a man of many interests. It seemed fitting that he might also be a science fiction aficionado.
This gives the group a reason to plan on a couple of days in the area, and when a man is found dead near the campground wearing Larry Shoemaker's rain gear, the decision to linger is taken out of their hands. So now they have real motivation to help find the escapee. Other turns in the plot make it mandatory.
In previous books in the series, Frannie Shoemaker is motivated to help solve crimes because of accusations against one of their group, danger to their grandchildren, discovering the body or the murder weapon, or isolation from any outside help. Larry Shoemaker is a retired small town cop, so this gives him a little credibility and influence with the local authorities. But readers are not generally willing to accept straight curiosity as a valid reason for interfering in a police investigation. Coming up with a motive for Frannie's interest has become one of the most important motives that I need to settle when working on a new book.
Review The Space Invader on Amazon.
Follow Karen Musser Nortman on Facebook.
Karen Musser Nortman's Frannie Shoemaker Campground Mysteries includes seven titles. She has also written two light time travel books in The Time Travel Trailer Series. Several of her books have been named IndieBRAG Medallion honorees and placed in Chanticleer writing contests. Find out more at www.karenmussernortman.com.
Debut author Ellen King Rice explores the mysterious world of mushrooms in this "What's the Motive?" post. A former wildlife biologist, Rice discusses epigenetics and the genesis of her character Edna Morton, who one day begins to sprout feathers.
Ellen King Rice:
Proteins. That was my motive. Thank goodness for you, dear reader, I wasn’t interested in high fiber at all (your inner life of fiber is, please, Dear God, your business). For years I’ve been curious: why don’t we see people breaking out in feathers? Feathers, after all, are made of the protein keratin. We produce one type of keratin in our fingernails and hair, so why, oh why, couldn’t a ‘mature' lady break out in angelic feathers instead of coarse chin hairs?
From my years as a biologist, I knew that all life is in a state of constant experimentation. We also know that there are ancient pictographs showing people with wings. Is it possible that there have already been people with feathers? Could that be the origin of our angel stories?
As I mulled over the idea of modern bodies changing to produce a new protein, I realized I would need a trigger for this new pathway. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider before changing into Spiderman. What could I use?
One day I was making my tortuously slow ambulation out to the mailbox when I saw a flush of mushrooms peeking out from the undergrowth. Hmm. Could mushrooms trigger anything in a person? I went inside, mulling this idea. A few minutes of Internet searching and . . . Holy Mother of God! Fungi are everywhere! (There are molds in the shower with you when you are naked and alone. Very creepy.) Not only are there millions of species of molds, yeasts, and mushrooms lurking everywhere, but some of the species absolutely have the ability to unspool dormant portions of human DNA. I had my trigger.
I began writing The EvoAngel in 2011. It was a stop-and-go process because a very new science was unfolding daily in the news: epigenetics. All DNA for all species has the ability to respond to environmental changes--and the really gobsmacking amazing thing? Once a DNA section is activated or stored, that change can be passed down to subsequent generations. I was writing a gallop through the woods of the Pacific Northwest as a fun thing to do. The more I learned about epigenetics, the more I realized how important it is for everyone to understand this new science.
Ever beat yourself up? Ever struggled to lose weight, be happy, quit drinking soda pop, or be less anxious? There can be a genetic aspect of each of these struggles--and, even more powerful to know, is that the responsible genetic switches can be jiggled from “on” to “off.” This is huge for mankind. It means that many things that have been regarded as “moral failings” are, instead, part of our cell structure. Furthermore, we don’t have to surrender to the situation. We can take charge and change--and we can do so in ways that will make our descendants healthier and stronger.
Alas, some of the science is more than a little tedious (Go ahead. Try murmuring “DNA methylation at the Cytosine juncture” into the ears of your beloved and see if you garner anything more than snores.) If I was going to keep readers interest on the science of feathers, mushrooms and epigenetics I clearly needed...lots of sex. Oh, dear. Could I really manage that? Hmm. Villains could help. So might a large adorable dog.
Buoyed by the reality that barnacles really do have an inflatable penis that is fifty times longer than the average barnacle body, I did my best to add in enough sex, villainy and puppy charm to keep the pages turning.
The end result is a story about an elderly mushroom hunter, Edna Morton, who has sprouted a feather. A trip to the local health clinic exposes her to an ambitious and aggressive physician who wants to take control of Edna and research this new biological oddity. The EvoAngel is a good gallop through the woods of the Pacific Northwest. It is part adventure, part science class, and totally fungi-friendly. My motive is to change the way you see your body and your world while making you laugh, gasp, and blink. All these things go well with a glass of wine and a slice of cheese, so prepare yourself and let’s begin...
Review The EvoAngel on Amazon.
Follow Ellen King Rice on Facebook.
Ellen King Rice is a former wildlife biologist whose fieldwork was ended by a back injury. She has reinvented herself as a writer, artist, and chocolate tester. Besides Amazon, her book can be found in Olympia-area retailers Orca Books, Island Market, and Bay Mercantile. She hosts Mushroom Tuesdays on Facebook. See www.ellenkingrice.com for more.
For this installment of "What's the Motive?" suspense author Chris Patchell argues that motivation isn't enough when it comes to developing a sympathetic but compelling character. She's developed a formula to illustrate her writing approach.
People are fascinating puzzles to solve. Why do people do the things they do? What motivates them? A dash of this, and you have a local hero. A dash of that, and you have a serial killer. The darker side of human nature has always sparked my curiosity, and maybe that’s why I write suspense.
Understanding a person’s motivations is a huge part of figuring out who they are. Having spent the majority of my professional life managing teams, I was always amazed to find that some of my top performers were driven by fear—the fear of rejection, the fear of failure. Fear can be a healthy motivator—it can compel us to be more prepared and work harder toward our goals, but fear can also inhibit or prevent us from getting what we want in life.
As an author, I’ve never liked my heroes bright and shiny, so in my latest suspense novel, In the Dark, I created an unlikely hero in Marissa Rooney. A single mother of two teenage girls with three failed marriages behind her, Marissa has a checkered past filled with menial jobs that allowed her just enough money to scrape by. When her daughter goes missing, Marissa’s motivation is clear. As parents, we’re instinctively hard-wired to want to protect our kids.
In crafting Marissa, though, I dug deeper into her character to expose not just her motivations, but her past experiences, her fears, and how they factored into her behavior. Motivation on its own is not enough. Two people may want the same thing, but they may go about getting it in very different ways. Let’s say two people want a new car. It’s expensive, and neither of these folks have the money. One person works hard and saves enough for a down payment while another person steals the car. Why?
Motivation + Experiences = Expected Behavior
Past experiences are the secret sauce in defining behavior. Some people have been taught that through hard work they can achieve their goals. Some people are taught to find short cuts. Others quit because their past failures have taught them that they can’t win. Some people don’t try at all.
As many of us do, Marissa equates the events of her life with who she is. Her past failures have instilled her with a whole host of fears. She’s afraid that she’s not good enough, smart enough, that all of her relationships are doomed. But most of all, she’s afraid that she will lose the only two good things she has in her life. Her daughters.
These fears drive Marissa throughout the story and cause her to make some interesting, and in some cases, awful choices. But the need to find her daughter is so powerful, it imbues her with an iron-clad will and the ability to withstand an enormous amount of pain in overcoming hellish obstacles to get what she wants.
In the end, Marissa finds what many of us find in our own lives when we face difficult, sometimes crippling circumstances: that she is stronger than she ever believed.
If motivation is the engine that drives your characters through the heart of your story, crafting a set of powerful formative experiences is the chassis that sets the reader up for a deliciously bumpy ride.
Review In the Dark on Amazon.
Chris Patchell is the bestselling author of In the Dark and the Indie Reader Discovery Award-winning novel Deadly Lies. A tech worker by day and a writer by night, she pens gritty suspense novels set in the Pacific Northwest.
Today fiction author and poet Nancy Slavin talks about how she finds motive in words themselves, both their beauty and their pain. "The first step towards violence," she says, "often is words that make people, well, less than people: into objects, or animals, or body parts."
Just a quick warning: In order to illustrate this, she uses a few examples of hurtful words below.
The subject of today’s post is about motive--what motivates this individual writer to write a certain book. I feel the need to state and expound on the obvious: words motivate me. Sound, rhymes, sentences, metaphors, stories; all the magic that can ensue just because of twenty-six English letters. If I wasn’t a writer, I’d be a linguist. I’d learn more letters and languages. My favorite part of motherhood was when my child was learning to speak; my second favorite has been watching her learn to read. I’m still amazed that little dark marks on a white page can communicate whole ideas, conjure galaxies, and create the possibility of freedom and justice.
My original writing training is in poetry; the fine tuning of words and sounds is deep in my heart. I happen to come from a family of mostly artists--a mother who paints, a photographer sister, and a father who is a graphic designer and a potter. I have a brother, too. He flies planes. For me, the artistic medium is words. So that’s the first motive, and I hope, if you’re a writer, that’s your first motive, too. Otherwise, perhaps, consider another medium, like paints or planes.
Because I love words, I am also fascinated by how poorly they get used and how often, especially in relationships (and really, all human interaction is in relationship, hello “friends” on Facebook). Poorly-used words was too often the experience in my childhood, as it is for lots of kids. The long-term witnessing of belittling, mean words, name-calling, and the silent treatment (the tense, tense absence of words), motivated me to work in the field of domestic and sexual violence.
In my work for more than twenty years, I was a violence-prevention educator--I taught other people, mostly youth, but many adults too, how to use words to communicate feelings and needs in healthy rather than hurtful ways, words that created connection rather than division and wreckage. In my trainings, I facilitated a lot of exercises that asked people to consider their words--words that were cruel but often minimized as no big deal, and/or words that categorized another person into an “other” based on their gender, race, religion, class, sexual identification or orientation. I said some dreaded words out loud and wrote them on boards, and I discussed their origins: words like bitch, fag, nigger, and redneck. I did this work so students could learn the histories and weight of words they might casually say or hear or write on the back of a desk. Depending on if they were on the receiving or giving end, they might respond to those words with an upped ante of violence, towards another, or inwards at themselves. The first step towards violence often is words that make people, well, less than people: into objects, or animals, or body parts.
As a domestic violence worker, I heard all kinds of stories about abuse that left literal scars on people. But I tell you, many, many people also disclosed quite often how the words hurt the most--the words of being told they were no good, not worthy, deserved the abuse, that the abuse was their fault, and many versions on that theme. The words, they told me, were the hardest to shake. They kept hearing those words in their head, reverberating.
All of the above lays the foundation for the main question I explore in my creative work: how do we heal from violence? How do we stop hurtful words from reverberating in our minds? Ultimately, that question led me to create a character in my first novel, Moorings. She was a woman who’d escaped terrible domestic violence, but she’d become mean herself, even in safety. I was curious what continued healing might look like for her. And I also explore the question in my second novel, which is based on and written for many of the youth with whom I worked, who’d been told twelve ways to Sunday they were unlovable and unloved. How does a person stop hearing those words and start believing a new story about who he or she is?
There are many novels that have explored domestic violence and the rewriting of your own story, or writing your way into a new one. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, Black and Blue by Anna Quindlan, and for youth dealing with family violence, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison and The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy all come to mind. Although it's poetry, Maya Angelou’s book Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing, and the poem “Caged Bird” that appears in that collection and stems from her important memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was a formative poem for me. I’m also a fan of the play Trifles, by Susan Glaspell. And since I’m working on my YA novel, my next book up to read is Speak, by contemporary author, Laurie Halse Anderson, which confronts the reality of sexual assault.
I am motivated in my personal life to be a healthier person. I have come a long way in some areas, and, in other ways, I still have a long way to go. I use words to tell myself some fascinating stuff sometimes. But listening to the words I say out loud, and then writing the words down to revise my own story, is my path toward health and healing. See? The letters “h-e-a-l” are the first four letters of “health.” How cool is that?
For an important talk on the power of words in relationship to violence, I recommend Jackson Katz’s TED talk on domestic violence and words and language.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Check out which communities near you have planned to raise awareness through the National Coalition to End Domestic Violence.
Follow Nancy Slavin on Twitter.
Nancy Slavin has been a longtime English literature and writing instructor for a community college as well as a violence-prevention educator. She’s authored a collection of poems, Oregon Pacific (2015), and a novel, Moorings, (2013). More of her work can be found in Rain Magazine, Barrelhouse, hip mama, Literary Mama, and Oregon Humanities Magazine. Her website is www.nancyslavin.com.
Looking for other "What's the Motive?" articles? Here you are.
In this regular blog series, guest authors discuss the motive behind their latest books--or in this case, games. Maybe that’s the motive for murder in the traditional mystery sense, but writers will share some aspect of motive in their works without spoiling the plot. For example, rather than focusing on the killer, what is the protagonist’s motive? This could also be the author’s motive for writing the story. Why this story? Why now? Contributors are free to explore “motive” in all of its connotations.
When it comes to Interactive Fiction, where reader choice matters, motive is a little more up-for-grabs. If you were a nerdy kid like me in the 80s, you remember Choose Your Own Adventure books, with multiple endings and reader choice all the way through. This form enjoys a vibrant life online today, as in Rebecca Slitt's Psy High.
What’s the motive in Psy High? It’s whatever you decide it is.
Psy High is an interactive novel: on the border between a book and a game. As in all of the titles from Choice of Games, you the reader direct the action at every turn: you decide what the main character does and why. Not only that, but you get to choose the main character’s name, gender, orientation, personality, and goals.
The story in Psy High is a mixture of mystery, romance, and supernatural elements, inspired by “Veronica Mars” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” You play a teenager with psychic powers – clairvoyance and telepathy – who uses their gifts to solve mysteries. When an old friend asks you to investigate why your classmates are acting strangely, you discover a plot that could put the whole school at risk. You have to maneuver around your teachers, parents, and even your friends while using your magical abilities to uncover the truth – not to mention going to class, trying out for the drama club play, and finding a date for the prom.
The culprit has their own motive, but you figure that out – along with the culprit’s identity – fairly early. The more complicated question is: what's your motive? When you discover what's really going on in your high school, what do you do about it, and why?
Maybe you’re motivated by altruism: you want to do what will help the most people. That’s a noble goal, but it’s not always easy to figure out how to reach it. What helps one person might hurt another.
Maybe you’re motivated by affection: you see how all of these issues are affecting your friends and want to help them. Maybe you want to help your boyfriend or girlfriend, or do whatever it takes to make them happy, or just spend as much time with them as possible. The prom is coming up, after all, and what could be more important than that?
Maybe you’re motivated by power. There’s plenty of power to be had, both magical and otherwise, and plenty of secrets to uncover. Do you care about that more than you care about your classmates? More than going to college? More than anything?
Maybe you’re motivated by a desire to fit in. In high school, what’s worse than being different? You can try to reject your magical power, act like every other kid, keep your head down, study, and try to lead a perfectly ordinary life.
Or, maybe you think that the villain isn't such a villain after all. Maybe you realize that you share their motive: you think that their plan will make the school a better place, not worse. That’s possible, too. You can team up with them and use your magic to help them.
What this all means is that you get to choose the kind of story that you’re participating in. It can be a story about love conquering all: You can find your true love and draw on the strength of that bond to triumph over whatever challenges come your way. It can be a story about discovering deeper truths about yourself and the world: learning what you truly care about, what your values are, and how far you’ll go to defend them. It can be a story about rebellion: breaking every rule, fighting the power wherever you find it, showing the world that you’re your own person. It can even be a story about failure: No matter how strong or noble your motives are, there’s no guarantee that you’ll succeed – so if you fail, what meaning will you draw from that?
There are dozens of stories to be told inside the mystery of Psy High, each with its own motive. You get to choose which story you want to tell.
Download and review Psy High.
Follow Rebecca Slitt on Twitter.
Rebecca Slitt is an academic-turned-game-designer who uses her knowledge of medieval history to make sure that dragon battles follow the principles of chivalry and time travelers go to the right places in medieval London. She is an editor and author for Choice of Games, and has contributed to the tabletop RPGs Timewatch and Noirlandia.
Welcome to the inauguration of "What's the Motive?" In this regular blog series, guest authors discuss the motive behind their latest books. Maybe that’s the motive for murder in the traditional mystery sense, but writers will share some aspect of motive in their novels without spoiling the plot. For example, rather than focusing on the killer, what is the protagonist’s motive? This could also be the author’s motive for writing the book. Why this book? Why now? Contributors are free to explore “motive” in all of its connotations.
Here Corrina Wycoff shares the motive behind all of her main characters, the "unattainable desire to outrun public failure." In this age of daily public online communications, it's one I'm sure many readers feel keenly.
In 1980, at nine years old, I auditioned for Annie. I lived on the East Coast, and going to a cattle call Broadway audition was practically as common a rite of passage as a first kiss. I wasn’t a particularly good singer, but I was a creditably good mimic. My Andrea McArdle impression was decent enough to get me a lot further in the audition process than it should have, far enough that every kid in my neighborhood knew about it, far enough that when I didn’t get cast after two call-backs, my failure became an ongoing subject of playground gossip and cafeteria scorn. Years later, after personal devastations much worse than the Annie experience, I still occasionally thought about this ruined chance, about the happier roads that might have arisen from earlier roads, if only.
I’ve never written about my unsuccessful childhood stab at professional theatre, but the important part of the story can’t be found in its literal details—the suffocating crowd of young girls waiting outside the Alvin Theatre on 52nd Street, admitted inside by the dozen to stand on the black, dusty stage and to sing a few bars of “Tomorrow”; the choreography I was shown twice and then expected, to my horrified astonishment, to repeat; the polished, young performers waiting backstage with me, wearing brand new, hot pink OshKosh B’Gosh overalls and comparing their agents, their private tap dance lessons in Manhattan, and their resumes. However, those details, once fictionalized beyond recognition, have repeatedly become the scabs overlying the singular stinging wound at the psychological core of all my main characters. My characters’ primary motivation—like mine, it seems—is always the unattainable desire to outrun public failure, a hopeless quest to transfigure it into something, anything, less painful.
My first book, O Street, describes a character’s twenty-year attempt to escape the humiliating aftermath of having been, in childhood, the victim of a well-publicized sexual assault. My newly published second book, Damascus House, follows six characters, members of a fundamentalist Christian church, each trying, in different ways, to restore dignity after suffering a small, public scandal. Currently, I’m working on a third manuscript, still untitled, that revolves around a woman who, with decreasing success, tries to rationalize her failings as they become increasingly apparent to everyone who knows her. Although we live, now, in a post post-Freudian world, the idea of a surveillant superego still captivates me as a source of narrative tension, as do the (very human) methods by which characters try to avoid the judgment and contempt of that surveillant Other.
Playwright Harold Hayes explained, “The essence of drama is that man cannot walk away from the consequences of his own deeds.” I repeat this advice to my creative writing students, to remind them to establish necessary elements of character motivation, tension, and conflict in their fiction. When I’m writing, I repeat this advice to myself, too, with the caveat that people also cannot walk away from the aftermath of their own humiliations, no matter how assiduously they try.
Review Damascus House.
Review O Street.
Follow Corrina Wycoff via Amazon.
Corrina Wycoff’s fiction and essays have appeared in journals, magazines, and anthologies. She is the author of two books of fiction, a linked story collection, O Street (2008, OV Books) and a recently released novel, Damascus House (Spuyten Duyvil Press). A single-mom-turned-empty-nester, she lives in Washington State, where she teaches English and Writing at Pierce College.
On Sunday I hoofed it down to Gladstone, OR, to take part in The Other Side Reading Series, hosted by Nancy Slavin, a past guest poet on the blog. I had the pleasure of sharing the mic with Julia Laxer, whose poems have appeared in So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art, Small Po[r]tions and The Nervous Breakdown. The theme was "heat," and Julia and I sizzled... literally. We were outside, the sun blazed down, and the mercury rose to around 90 degrees.
To further prove my in-synch-ness with the theme, I had my pick of tie-ins, from the opening fire scene in Framed and Burning, to the blaze of anger Mick Travers exhibits in that book, to the heat of passion in a couple of love poems tucked into Broom of Anger.
The talented Julia Laxer read about the seedy, lusty world of strip clubs, as well as traipsing through San Francisco in hot pursuit of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. She has a gift for the telling detail, and I can't wait to see what she does next. Her first book is sure to be a scorcher.
Organizer Nancy Slavin lusted after my hot shoes.
All thanks to Nancy Slavin for putting the heat on, Happy Rock Coffee for hosting, and to the Clackamas Review for this great event write-up. Gladstone's just a stone's throw from Portland, so if you're in the area for the next reading in the series on September 11, stop on by. You'll be glad.
by Andrea Dunlop
LB: Today on the blog I have Seattle-based author and social media consultant Andrea Dunlop. I asked her to critique my social media activity because I get a lot of compliments, but I honestly feel like I'm bumbling around most of the time. Here's Andrea.
As a social media consultant, I often work with clients who have either a small presence on social or are starting from scratch. So when Lisa reached out to me to give her social media a critique for a guest post, I was excited. She’s already done some of the hard work of cultivating an audience, so there’s something to build on.
There are a million ways big and small to improve your social media reach, and what’s more, new tools, platforms, and hacks pop up every day. I don’t pretend to know all of them (no one does), but the depth of the practice is what makes it so much fun to be a constant student of social media. It’s never going to be the same every day.
Below I’ve included some notes on what’s working well for Lisa on her blog, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as some recommendations for each.
Consistency: Lisa posts an average of at least once a week, which is my gold standard for author blogs. If you want to make your blog your main thing and a possible revenue generator, you’d want to blog more frequently (read a great series about that here from Ramshackle Glam’s Jordan Reid). But for most authors, your main goal is to bring some extra traffic to your site and keep readers engaged between projects. Once a week is great for that.
High-quality content: In addition to posting regularly, Lisa mixes in short posts with guest posts and longer, more in-depths posts on writing and publishing, such as this essay. Lisa has learned a lot of helpful information from her work, and she shares it with readers in a digestible way.
Reader Engagement: Many of Lisa’s posts about her writing involve a call to action for her readers, asking for feedback on a new prologue, or posting a call for beta readers, for example. Involving your readers in the process is an excellent way to galvanize your most passionate fans.
What to Work On
Focus: I love that Lisa mixes up her content, but it can also make the blog feel a little scattered. Lisa is doing a variety of interesting things (writing, indie publishing, game design) and this unique mix is part of what makes her worth following. This also means that she can hit a number of disparate audiences, which is great. The challenge here is making the content cohesive. Always think about what your core blog readership would be the most interested in.
Too Lisa-centric: Before you think I’m being critical here, this is a problem with most author blogs I see. Of course your fans want to hear about you and your books, but it’s easy for that to become monotonous for any reader who isn’t one’s husband or mother. Now of course there are exceptions and plenty of lifestyle bloggers who build platforms based almost solely on their own experiences, but again, that’s not going to work as well for an author blog. I would suggest to Lisa to add a bit more about what else she’s reading and content that focuses on fellow authors in her genre. Featuring others is also a great way to build community, which is one of the best long-term marketing strategies out there.
Consistency: Lisa tweets several times each day, which is a good bar for this platform (and why some people find it so intimidating!). The shelf life of a tweet is short, so if you don’t want to be on Twitter every day, you can always schedule tweets using a tool like Tweetdeck, but you also might consider whether this quick-moving, conversational platform is right for you.
Art: Lisa is taking full advantage of the banner space on Twitter by using it as ad space. You don’t get much space for text on Twitter so the more you can use the visuals, the better. Twitter has really upped its game with its visual components to keep up with competitors like Snapchat and Instagram.
What to Work On:
Avatar: I really recommend using a photo, rather than a painting or other drawing for your Avatar. There are exceptions, of course, like Grammar Girl, but she’s a persona, so it works. One of the things Twitter is the most useful for is networking; therefore, I prefer a clean, clear headshot (no hats and glasses please).
Too Lisa-centric: My biggest critique of Lisa’s Twitter is that it's almost exclusively about Lisa. This doesn’t mean that Lisa is a narcissist; it just means she’s not using the platform to its full effect. Twitter is one of the easiest platforms to use to share work by fellow authors and writers by tweeting about books you’re reading, links to essays, pictures from events, the list goes on. A good ratio is: for every tweet that’s about you/ your book, you should have about four that acknowledge someone else. Cheryl Strayed is an absolute all-star at this.
Selfies: There are lots of smiley photos of Lisa and shots from her everyday life. Super cute! Lisa’s Instagram makes me want to go hang out with her, maybe swing by her house for dinner. Her account gives me a sense of her personality.
What to Work On:
If Lisa just wanted to use her Instagram for fun, her approach would be fine, but right now it’s underutilized as a marketing tool. As an author, Instagram doesn’t always seem the most obvious choice for social media, but it’s one of the most powerful tools out there if used well. Don’t take my word for it; take Vogue’s.
Some tips for Lisa:
Consistency: Three times a week is a good minimum; every day is better. Do this by…
Mixing it up: Instagram is not only a great place to share selfies and other in-the-moment photos but also stylized images about your book (a few examples over on my page), inspirational quotes, videos, and more. Lisa has a ton of great images collected on her Pinterest page that would repurpose well for Instagram.
Books, books, books: If you are an author, you should be reading constantly and you should also be snapping photos of what you’re reading and uploading them to #bookstagram. Especially if you’re hoping to reach a younger audience, #bookstagram is where it’s at. Check out my favorite Bookgrammer @BookBaristas to see how it’s done.
*For more tips on Instagram, read here.
Andrea Dunlop is a social media consultant based out of Seattle, WA with over a decade of experience in book publishing. She is also the author of Losing the Light (out now) and the forthcoming novel She Regrets Nothing, both from Atria Books (Simon & Schuster). You can read more about Andrea’s consultant services here. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. She is currently running an introductory special for new clients, so book before August 1st to receive ten percent off your consultation fee.
Lead image courtesy of Pixabay.
Next month, I'll be featured with several other writers at a reading salon near Portland, OR. The theme is "heat." So of course I'll be reading from Framed and Burning. Or maybe I'll share some in-progress bits from Dreamslippers Book Three, offering a different kind of heat altogether!
It's at Happyrock Coffee Roasting Co. in Gladstone. I've never been before, but I'm told it's a lovely place, and one should make a day of it and have lunch first in Oregon City overlooking the river. Our host is Nancy Slavin, author of the poetry collection Oregon Pacific and a past guest here on the blog.
For more details and to RSVP, see the event's Facebook page.
I was featured along with six other writers in a blog series about writing with intention. Our host, Alexis Donkin, believes that "fiction can shape the way we think about the world." She asked questions like this one: "If there is one thing you'd want people to do after reading this book, what would it be?"
For Saadia Faruqi, the answer is for readers to read another book set in a culture different from their own. She wrote a short story collection set in Pakistan in order to "showcase the reality behind Pakistan’s complicated politics and culture," without presenting stereotypes. Author Sharon Angelici, a Midwestern stay-at-home mom, would like for her book about suicide to spark difficult conversations.
In writing Cat in the Flock, I wanted to offer a warning about the damage of repressive, prejudicial beliefs while approaching the subject of evangelical religion with compassion for all.
What are your thoughts about writing with intention? To me this is different than political writing or propaganda because the material must first be in service to story. As I told Alexis, "Stereotypes and omissions on either side of the political spectrum usually weaken the story."
Weigh in on that below, or tell us about a book that changed your thinking--or your life.
by Alexis Donkin
LB: Writing for the blog today is Alexis Donkin, blogger, speaker, and author of what she describes as "a library of books," from fantasy and sci-fi to memoir and journal guides. I asked her to discuss how she meshes a spiritual path with her development as a fiction writer, or how the two intersect. Here's Alexis.
I think I wrote 10 different posts about this topic only to abandon them. How can I talk about spirituality and my writing? How can I not? How can I talk about my spiritual practice and not freak people out?
I grew up with two ordained ministers as parents, so religion has always been a topic discussed at dinner. Faith was linked to every aspect of our lives. Pastors are like politicians in that everyone has expectations for them, and their families. There were parts of our lives that never saw the light of day...well...until I wrote about them in my memoir.
Because of my upbringing, I've had an unusual relationship with spirituality. I started out being very Christian. My faith led me to study other traditions as a path to addressing the world's needs (the product of this education is my world religion curriculum and associated interfaith devotional). In that study, I questioned my allegiance. I never identified with those publicly identifying as Christians. Somehow they managed to insert Jesus into every other sentence. They talked about prayer as if it was this transformative experience, and for me, being progressive, I couldn't decide if they were genuine – or lying. It didn't connect with my own experience.
So as I researched other traditions, I questioned my own. In the end, I discovered all faiths have parts I like and parts I hate. It just so happens, I like Christianity best. It speaks my cultural language. I like the story of Jesus.
This seems like a round-about way to talk about spirituality in writing, but it's important to know my perspective to understand why I write what I do – what drives everything in my life.
I am, by all accounts, a very spiritual person. I meditate daily. I go to church every week and even lead the worship band. I pray before meals. I express gratitude for the beauty of every moment – whatever that beauty is. When I submit a piece, I pray the outcome achieves the highest good of all. I meditate before I write my blog posts – checking in with my gut to confirm the topic is right.
I do that even for social media posts.
As I write this out, I wonder if this is an unusual thing. I expect it is rare for people to do these things, but for me, I have to interact in the world this way. Everything I do is centered around my personal purpose – to spread compassion and empathy through my writing and speaking.
I tried to write commercially. I tried to write solely to entertain. Instead, I wrote about gender dynamics, equality, and climate change. I tried to write freelance articles about tourist things and the like – I can't do it. My head starts to ache and I grow restless. I have the urge to throw my computer.
My call is too strong to ignore. When I try to avoid it, something always brings me back. So I embraced it. Once I did, things started falling into place for me. I embraced the fact that I am a deeply spiritual human, and became open about it. I found myself supported in this, even from unexpected sources (like staunch Humanists).
My spirituality is generally implicit in my blog posts. It's implicit in my fiction pieces. While I can't separate my faith and practices from my work, I'm not interested in converting people to my particular way of being. That doesn't serve anyone. I just want people to love themselves and love others. I think that makes the world a better place, and ultimately, that's the highest good.
Alexis Donkin lives in Southern California with her family. She is a classically trained artist, with a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies and an MA in Global and International Studies. Between writing, speaking, and chasing her kid, she paints, sings, and dances. Sometimes Alexis does it all at once.
Nancy Slavin, Author of Oregon Pacific
Today I'm thrilled to have a guest poet on the blog, Nancy Slavin, who indie-published her collection last year under the Bay City Books label. She's detailed her decision on this, including the costs to print the books herself, in the post "What You Love Has Value." It's a story that resonated with me since my own poetry publication is 100% a labor of love. Reading the exquisite poems in Oregon Pacific, I can't help but wonder at the voices we lose with so few opportunities for poets like Nancy. Working with traditional forms such as the sonnet, sestina, and ode, she calls to mind both the subtle and dramatic rhythms of the Northwest coast, a place where "the foghorn alone has discipline."
Here's a sample poem from the collection.
– for Angela
You are a new soul
sprouted like a seedling
that for eons wind has blown
on white fluffy wings.
Abandoned on earth
bereft of your home,
left only the hurt
of blood-red rhizomes
rooting in plots
of industrial waste.
You wonder if this lot
is a perennial mistake.
For the ache of your body
stretched toward the sun
with primroses budding
But all around, each hour,
more are being captured.
Bright pink flowers
swell into capsules
which, in spite of fear,
by the light on which they feed
open to the air
millions of angelic seeds.
You can purchase a print copy of Oregon Pacific through Nancy's Web site, and she will send you a signed book if you do.
Nancy and I met in an online writing community and have been each other's editing coaches for the past few months. I value her feedback on my early drafts and pitches. In addition to Oregon Pacific, she's also authored a novel, Moorings, which won the first place prize for the Nina Mae Kellogg Award for Graduate Fiction at Portland State University. She is an English teacher and violence prevention educator who lived on the Oregon coast for twenty-plus years.
by Dr. Chris Michaels
LB: Today on the blog I have Dr. Chris Michaels, an inspiring author, speaker, and executive coach. I asked him to write about relocation in order to achieve one's life purpose. Some people might say you're just running away from your problems when you move to another place, but on the other hand, doing so can be an enormous step toward positive change. The question is an important one for me, as the main character in my novel Cat in the Flock relocates to Seattle from St. Louis in order to apprentice with her grandmother as a dreamslipper and private investigator, but then her first case, ironically, takes her back to St. Louis.
Here's what Chris has to say.
Who doesn’t want an adventure?
Today a lot of millennials are turning their backs on traditional jobs and traveling the world instead of settling for a more conventional life. Shows like HGTV run non-stop marathons featuring families looking to purchase homes in far-off, magical lands. Last week I attended the World Domination Summit with author Chris Guillebeau. He wrote the book The Art of Non-Conformity, which chronicles his 10-year quest to visit every country in the world. Chris’ book has motivated millions to pursue their dreams of adventure.
This need for mobility, freedom, and adventure isn’t really new. Historically, Americans have always been a bit restless. And we have always felt like the grass is greener on the other side…
But sometimes, the grass really is greener somewhere else.
I grew up in a small, rural town where conformity was the norm. There wasn’t a lot of room or acceptance for boys like me. I knew from a very young age that if I didn’t get out of that town my life might be in danger.
Time has changed some things. (Although in many parts of America we still have a long way to go.) But the truth is if I stayed in that small town I would have never met my partner Aubrey. We’ve been together for 19 years. And he has supported me and helped make me the man I am today. If I stayed in that small town, I would have never started the Center of Spiritual Living in Kansas City. I would have never met the people within that community that have given me endless inspiration to carry on and do meaningful work in the world.
Some people think who they marry or what career they choose is the most important decision in their life, but I think where you choose to live is of equal importance. If you love to surf, you’re probably not going to be very happy living in Iowa. If you want to be a famous actor, living in Montana is not going to help you achieve your dreams.
Over the years, I have done many personal and professional development programs. Location is often a topic that comes up for people as they consider how to live a life of purpose and meaning. As people start to pursue their dreams, they sometimes realize they aren’t in an environment that supports them.
Location is important to me, too. I live in Kansas. But during the winter months I run screaming to Florida. The bleak, grey winter does not inspire me. In fact, being trapped in a house without sun and vitamin D makes me sluggish. So I plan my escape each year.
Changing locations isn’t easy. Family, money, and career obligations often keep us in one place, even though we may long to be in another. But that doesn’t mean we can’t travel to other places. Airbnb opens up wild new opportunities to go places that are affordable.
Think about what feeds your soul. Where do you dream of living or traveling? What goals do you have for your life, and where are they most likely to be achieved? Create a plan and start taking actionable steps.
How do you know when the grass really is greener?
There is only one way to know. You can only know this if you really know yourself.
Chris Michaels is a husband, executive coach, national speaker, entrepreneur and author. Chris’ recent book, The Power of You, published by Penguin Press in 2014 received a Silver medal in the Nautilus Awards, an organization that recognizes world-changing books.
When not building programs, writing, and speaking, Chris is traveling to Bali, Thailand, or Europe. During the winter he can be found in Florida soaking up the sun and dreaming of his next big assignment.