My daughter has been obsessively watching Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) the past few weeks. And it struck me suddenly that I like Captain Hook, in spite of his villainy. I’ve seen my share of Disney movies, and he’s the only bad guy I empathize with. As a writer, I started to wonder why.

First, I compared Hook to other Disney villains and their main emotional drives. Showing my age, my examples are ones from my childhood. Some modern Disney villains may also employ the techniques that make Hook a great villain, but the lessons I gleaned from Hook still hold true.

    1. Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty) – revenge
    2. Stepmother (Cinderella) – greed
    3. Evil Queen (Snow White) – jealousy
    4. Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians) – vanity
    5. Hook (Peter Pan) – revenge

On the surface, Hook seems much like the others, driven purely by some dark emotion. But although I enjoyed the other villains, I never empathized with them on any level. I identified 2 things that set him apart.

1) Motivation backstory – for most Disney villains, we never know why they are driven by these dark urges. Did Maleficent snap over a lack of invitation because she was a nerd in high school? Did the Stepmother grow up dirt poor and swear “never again”? Was the Evil Queen so insecure about her looks because her mother always told her she was ugly? Did Cruella De Vil want to stand out so much because she had always been overlooked as a child? We never know the backstory—we only see the results.

With Hook, we do know why he is driven—and it is a nuanced why. He’s not seeking vengeance for Peter cutting off his hand—no, he wants revenge because Peter threw the hand to a crocodile, causing the beast to stalk Hook constantly.

2) Vulnerability – The other Disney villains are pure evil. Chilling. The stuff of nightmares. And they have no human weaknesses.

Hook, though, has a glaring weakness—he is terrified of the crocodile. Not just nervous, but scream-like-a-child, jump-into-Smee’s-arms hysterical whenever he hears that clock. Such blatant vulnerability in a man who casually shoots his own crew when they annoy him opens up a very human side we can access.

These 2 techniques (combined with a touch of comedy) give Hook accessibility that many Disney villains lack—and therefore allow us to empathize with him.

I’m going to keep that in mind for my villains. While I have always known they need to be 3-dimensional, I have focused more on making them strong enough to push the hero than on making them accessible to the reader. By giving them nuanced motives that I allow my readers to see and by adding a vulnerability the reader can relate to (who wants to be eaten by a crocodile, after all?), I can make my villains stronger, deeper, and more memorable.

Do you have any tricks for making your villains relatable to the reader?

Posted by: Kerry Gans | August 14, 2014

A Pantser Plots: Bringing Old Friends to Life

I am usually a hybrid when it comes to outlining. I know my beginning and ending and a few of the big points in the middle, and then just let the words rip. For my current Work-In-Progress (WIP), I wanted to plan ahead more.

This is my first “from scratch” novel since my daughter was born. I know that I have much less free time to write, so I wanted to be able to make the most of the time I had. I figured if I knew what needed to happen next before I sat down to write, I could use my time more efficiently. So this time around, I decided to plot more.

First I just did the four major beats: turning point (end of Act I), midpoint, black moment (end of Act II), climax. That was enough to get me to the end of Act I, because the beginning had been very clear in my head. Then I looked ahead and realized I would need a more detailed outline—something new for me.

This book is new for me on many levels—in particular, it is dual point-of-view (POV). I realized after getting to the end of Act I that I needed to plot so that I could see the flow of POV chapters. During the messy middle the POV characters are separated (thus the need for 2 POVs). So I had to make sure one storyline was not much shorter than the other. And in doing so I realized I needed to bring in a third POV to make it all work.

The third POV is a spirit that possesses the female POV character, and the female POV character cannot see or hear what is happening while she is possessed. But the reader needs to know. So in essence the third POV takes the place of the first POV character at times. Confused, yet?

Yeah, that’s why I needed an outline.

Finally, this WIP is based on a complete but very poorly written novel I wrote about 30 years ago (yes, I was only 14). I always loved the characters and the premise, but I am a considerably better writer than I was as a freshman in high school. A year or so ago, these characters came back into my mind and would not leave. I got so enthused about writing them again that I had to do it.

The old manuscript had pretty much everything wrong with it, but it served as a rough guide. One big problem with it was that it was written in omniscient POV, which I had no intention of using in the new book. So when it came to the big battle scenes in the middle/end of Act II, I could not jump from POV to POV to POV of all these minor characters. Wrestling the main events of the battle (and events leading up to it) so my male POV could be in the key places was another huge reason I needed to outline.

Although based on the same premise as that old manuscript, this WIP is vastly different plot-wise, and vastly better craft-wise. I am so excited to be writing these old friends again and finally being able to do them justice.

Have you ever gone back to an old work and given it new life? Or has an old work given you new life?

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Posted by: Kerry Gans | August 7, 2014

Laptop Scramble

I am always surprised at how lost I feel when my computer is out of order. I can write on paper, of course, but I use my computer for so many other things. I have a massive To-Do list, which I have color-coded in Excel. I take many photos, which I edit on my computer. I have a dumbphone, so the only way I can get to email or social media is my computer. For someone who lived most of her childhood before the Internet and computers, I am amazed at how addictively plugged-in I have become.

Whether this plugged-in-ness is good or bad can be debated, but there is no doubt that a computer is a requirement of my job. I need it to do my publisher’s edits. I need it to collaborate with my web guru, currently updating my website/blog. I need it to upload manuscripts for self-publishing projects. I need it to submit short stories to markets, and query letters to agents. And of course I need it for the marketing necessity of building platform.

So when my laptop died last week, I felt cut off from the world.

I went away on vacation Monday, and by Tuesday the laptop was acting up. It would start to boot, then just power off before it even got to the splash screen. Multiple tries finally got it booted. I managed to get all my blog posts finished and posted before I closed down that night. Same scenario happened Wednesday—a few heart-stopping moments before it booted. Thankfully, it booted, since I got an email from my publisher. Thursday we headed home, and it booted right up when we got home. I wisely backed up the few things I had not already backed up, and shut it down.

That was the last time it ever booted up.

Diagnosis came on Friday: Fried motherboard. I am so thankful that I had begun to do weekly backups, so I didn’t lose anything!

But I still needed a new laptop asap.

Saturday I went shopping. I found one a laptop I really liked at Walmart—the same brand as my old one. But Walmart didn’t have the one I liked in stock—only on display. So I went to Best Buy. I found one that was close, but more than I wanted to spend. But after calling 3 other Walmarts which also didn’t have the model I wanted, I bought the Best Buy.

I talked to my parents soon after arriving home, and mentioned my disappointment in not having found the model I wanted. My mother suggested I call the Walmarts around them, and they could pick it up. So I did…and the third one had ONE computer left.

My wonderful parents, tired from the Billy Joel concert Saturday night, picked up my laptop (after a couple of minor snafus, of course) Sunday and made a special trip to bring it to me. So after a nice lunch with them, I spent the rest of the night setting everything up.

So far, so good. I am adjusting to the new keyboard and the new operating system. My biggest peeve so far is that the power cord is about 4 inches shorter than the old one and no longer reaches the most convenient plug for me. But if that is the worst of my problems, I will take it!

My old laptop lasted 7 years. So that means I should be good until 2021. :-)

How technology-dependent are you? What’s your worst tech horror story, and how did you recover?

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Posted by: Kerry Gans | July 31, 2014

VERITAS, Act I complete

My current Work-In-Progress (WIP) is a science fiction YA called Veritas. This is the first book I have started from scratch since my daughter was born. As a result, I have no idea how long it will take me to finish this book. In pre-child days, I could have gone from rough draft to final draft within a year, if I put my nose to the grindstone. Today? No idea. I’m learning what my new normal is.

So, I was very happy to reach the end of Act I in Veritas. It’s about 15,000 words, and will probably grow closer to 18,000 by the time I go back and fill in some of the world-building and deepen some of the emotional moments.

I’ve been trying to work my process a little differently this time around. Although I love to edit, I want to try to cut my time between rough draft and final draft. I am more of a pantser, but I am trying to use a very basic guideline. In my case, I am using Jami Gold’s Basic Beat Sheet,which allows me to pretend I’m pantsing while actually plotting. ;-) It tells me the four main beats I need to have, and about where they should fall word-count wise given my estimated final word count. So far, it has helped me stay on track.

I am wondering what I should do next. Normally, I am a proponent of writing the first draft through to the end without going back and editing. However, I am a little unclear where I am going in the second act, and I think going back and expanding the world and adding depth to the characters might help me find my way. Perhaps it will inspire me. Or I may just plow on and write to my next beat (midpoint) and see what happens. As I said, I am feeling out my process now and seeing what can help speed up the writing while maintaining (or improving) the quality.

Veritas seems to be an experimental novel for me. Not only am I tweaking my writing process, but it is my first dual-POV novel. So far I like how it’s working, although I may reach the end and decide it doesn’t work for the story overall. But we shall see.

I am waiting for the second round of edits for my novel Ozcillation (coming 2015 from Evil Jester Press), but in the meantime I will continue to move forward with Veritas. I know what my major beats are, I am growing more comfortable with my characters, and I am eager to try and take my writing to a new level.

How about you—what writing milestones have you reached lately?

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Posted by: Kerry Gans | July 24, 2014

Re-Reading: Waste of Time or Needed Rest?

As a kid, I re-read a lot. Sure, I always devoured new books, too, but there were books I read over and over. When you’re a kid, you have that luxury of time, so you can read new books and old books at will.

As I got older, through high school and college and grad school, I stopped re-reading. I had too many new books to read for school, and I had a job as well. No time for dipping back into a book I had loved.

That set the trend for my adulthood—I rarely re-read. I went on a classics binge and read all the “classics” I hadn’t read in school. Lately, I’ve been reading all the Newbery Award winners (I think I have 6 left.) But re-reading? I had no time for that—especially after my daughter came along.

Yet here I am, three weeks into re-reading books I loved when I was younger. It started because I fell into a period where I couldn’t get to the library, yet had finished all the books I had gotten out. I am a person who HAS to have something to read, so I got a book off my bookshelf and started reading. I have read Jean M. Auel’s Shelters of Stone, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Antonia Barber’s The Ghosts, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House In The Big Woods and Little House On The Prairie.

Part of me thinks this is a waste of my time. With so many books out there, why re-read something? But I am finding this to be restful. My brain is buzzing all day long. With a familiar book, I can settle into the story and enjoy the writing, but not have to put all my brain into concentrating. Perhaps it is my version of zoning out in front of the TV.

I find that I see things in the books I did not when I read them years ago, which keeps a freshness to them. And none have been in my current WIP’s genre, so it is not causing creative conflict in my brain. Yet they are stories, and that helps keep my mind primed for writing even as it lets me sit back and breathe.

I will return to reading new books, probably very soon, but I think this respite has been good for me. Like comfort food for my brain. And it has made me remember what it was that I loved about reading, and about the stories I read as a child. Reconnecting with that passion as a reader will feed into my writing—because I want to write stories that people will want to re-read again and again.

How about you? Are you a re-reader? Or is once enough for you?

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Posted by: Kerry Gans | July 17, 2014

Treading Water: When the work seems futile

Perhaps it is the artist’s temperament, but I sometimes feel down for no real reason. Not depressed, just as if I am performing exercises in futility—like I’m treading water.

There are days, sometimes weeks, when I feel simultaneously overwhelmed and like nothing is happening. I tried to explain this to my husband the other day, and the best analogy I could come up with was treading water. I’m not drowning, but I’m not moving forward, either.

Usually this suspended feeling happens when I combine too little sleep with too many projects, with a healthy dose of my-daughter-is-giving-me-a-stroke-itis. Almost always, this feeling grabs me when I am working on many projects that have no immediate payoff, such as working on social media stuff or blogging or at the beginning of a long novel. When these things happen all at once, it creates that feeling of working hard and getting nowhere fast.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not the type of person who insists on instant gratification. But sometimes I wonder why I’m doing all this. I start to wonder why I blog. Or write a short story. Or even work on my current Work-In-Progress. I work so hard and then wonder, so what? I mean, who cares, really? And what does it matter, really? Who is ever going to notice if I just stop it all right now? And sometimes it gets so overwhelming that I actually do think about walking away.

But I know I won’t.

Because people have told me that they read my blog and it helps them. Because I learn so much from the blogs I write for. Because people have told me that they read my latest short story and it moved them. Because I am excited about my current WIP. Because I know I will not always be exhausted and have a preschooler underfoot to make writing time a guilty pleasure. Because I have my debut novel coming out next year and am crazy excited about it.

Because I will never stop writing until I am dead. It is who I am, not what I do. And if even one thing I write helps one person, then I have changed the world.

That is no small thing.

Do you ever feel like this? How do you shake out of your funk when it seems like all your work is futile?

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Posted by: Kerry Gans | July 10, 2014

What’s Your Observational Intelligence Quotient?

This article on the Blood-Red Pencil brought to my attention the idea of observational intelligence (OQ). We all know that most writers are pretty observant people, but did you know that there are two types (and a continuum in between)? An “innie” focuses more on the interior direction, and the “outie” focuses more on external observations. Neither is “bad” or “wrong,” but if we know which we are, we can work on strengthening our observational skills.

I took the OQ quiz confident that I would be a solid “innie.” It’s no secret that I am an introvert and prone to introspection. So my score—20—shocked me. It placed me dead in the center of the continuum. So I examined my answers to see how I had gotten that score.

I found that I had rated several of the major external observational factors quite high, while others didn’t register at all. How could that be? Then the pattern became clear.

My anxiety disorder had tipped the scale.

The anxiety disorder makes me hyper-aware of certain things, such as:

  • Where are the exits
  • What is the mood of people around me
  • Hearing even soft sounds while immersed in something else

In other words, I am highly observant of anything that will help keep me safe, help me avoid dangerous situations, and allow me to flee if needed.

Other external factors, not so much. I am rarely aware of:

  • What people are wearing
  • The color of walls in a room
  • If something subtle has changed in the room since last time I was there

So the good news is that I am more observant than I thought. And I could work to become even more observant of those factors I rarely notice now, which could improve my writing.

I think, though, I would have to have a limited observational improvement. As with most anxiety-disordered people, sensory overload happens easily for me. And when I get overloaded, I shut down and stop interacting. I feel like I’m not really there, as if I’m watching everything from outside my body. It is an uncomfortable and frustrating feeling. So while I would like to up my OQ, I think I would only “engage” the new skills at selective times and places, when I am not already feeling overwhelmed.

What’s your OQ?

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Posted by: Kerry Gans | July 3, 2014

How to Cut a Book in Half: 3 Tips

No, I am not doing that magic trick where a magician cuts an assistant in half. I would never hurt a book that way! Seriously, though, I had a big problem with one of my middle grade books.

I have been working with 2 co-authors on a middle grade adventure book. When we started writing it together a few years ago, we were all new to the publishing track of writing. None of us had any book-length publishing experience, although a few short stories had seen the light of day. So we wrote this awesome book together.

The problem was that it was 96,000 words long.

For those who do not know, that is a very long book. Even had it been an adult book, it would have raised some flags, depending on genre. A middle grade book, though, is usually dialed in at 40,000-60,000 words (depending on genre). So you can see how far off we were. Why did we get it so wrong? We were new, and didn’t know any better. We made the mistake and that is how you learn.

Even at that length, though, we had several agents interested in it–even asking for fulls. So obviously there was something in the idea that they liked. A good sign.

Developmental editor Kathryn Craft worked on it for us, and gave us great tips, one of which was that it was way too long. So, we headed back to the drawing board.

We have cut that book from 96,000 words to 53,000 words. Right in the sweet spot.

How did we do it? Here are 3 tips:

1) We took out all the scenes that were not in our protagonist’s point of view (POV). We realized we didn’t need those scenes to tell the story, although we loved a lot of them.

2) We dialed back the subplots. We loved our subplots. They really added to the color of the story, especially since it is a historical novel. But they weren’t necessary to move the plot forward. So we cut them down (or cut them completely) and settled for hinting at the subplots rather than fleshing them out. Instead of whole scenes, we used a line or two here and there to hint that:

  • Sister works at Wanamaker’s and wants more than to be a housewife
  • Pharmacist sells illegal booze from their store (it is Prohibition)
  • Brother has PTSD from World War I, drinks and brawls
  • Professor at museum drinks and must hide it from the administrators

3) Replotted the first part of the book. The last part of the book, where the action ramped up, was good. We had a lot of feedback that at a certain scene the book took off and people couldn’t put it down. Clearly, we needed to get people to that point much faster. We went back and revisited the longer, fuller, and thus slower-moving first part. By removing subplots and non-protagonist POV scenes, we had a clearer idea of where the main plot needed to go. We found ways to hit the high points faster, and compressed the entire timeline of the book from almost 3 months to 6 days. Much better!

Of course, after replotting and streamlining the first part, it took a while to wrestle the second part into shape, to make sure everything was consistent and the voice didn’t change. But we did it!

So that’s how you cut a book in half: ruthlessly cut everything that is not integral to the story and then make what’s left move faster. Simple, right?

Have any of you needed to make such a major edit? How did you do it?

Posted by: Kerry Gans | June 26, 2014

Because it All Reflects on Me

Publishing is a business and everything I put out reflects on my brand. Everything. Even if it’s something outside my usual commercial writing sphere that few people will ever see.

Most of you know I successfully self-published a genealogy book for my dad’s family. It came out wonderfully, and I was very pleased. I decided to edit the book down to end with my grandparents’ generation (to keep personal information on living individuals private) and release it to the public.

I chose to get the book professionally copy edited, because no author can catch all his or her own mistakes. I did not hire a professional book designer only because I could not afford one. However, I did research the basic design mistakes of self-published authors that make their books look amateur and did my best to avoid them.

My genealogy book is clearly a niche book. I will be shocked if it sells even 100 copies. Because of the small expected sales, and because genealogy books even by the genealogy publishers are not exactly known for their book design, I felt that the business decision of not paying for professional design was a valid one. Had this been a book I anticipated having high sales numbers, I would have thought otherwise. However, knowing the expectations of my audience, I made a calculated decision.

Because, as a business, I have to decide how to spend (or not spend) my limited money.

Time is also money, as the saying goes, and as a business owner, I need to make another decision: How much time am I willing to invest in any given project to make it “good enough.”

After I got my copy-edited genealogy Word manuscript back, I made the changes, went through it one more time, then converted it into a PDF file. I added in all the photo JPGs, checked everything one more time, and then went through the final step of converting that regular PDF into a PDF/X-1a file, which is the required file format for Ingram Spark (and CreateSpace). I had done this exact process for my family’s edition, and it had worked flawlessly.

Then I uploaded the PDF/X file and waited for the e-proofs from Ingram Spark. I got them, and flipped through the proofs quickly to make sure all the margins and layout looked nice. It did, so I Approved the paperback version and ordered a hardback version for myself so I could see the cover prior to Approving it. I got the hardcover (beautiful!!) and happily pressed Approve. My genealogy book was now available to the public.

But.

A few days later, I was at my cousin’s house, and I pulled out the hardback to answer a genealogy question. And I saw something strange in the text. A weird space in a word. Instead of Census, it said C ensus. I flipped a page—d aughters. And another. And another. Odd spaces in random words littered the book.

At home, I pulled up the final PDF/X file. Yup, there were the weird spaces. I pulled up the regular PDF file, the one I had converted from. No weird spaces. I tried the conversion again. The spaces appeared again. To this day I have no idea why they appeared in this conversion, when they did NOT appear in the family edition version. It is a technical mystery that is baffling me. But I had to find some way to fix it, because I could not let the book stay out in public the way it was.

So I went into the PDF/X file and painstakingly found every instance I could of the spacing. I went through the document twice, and used the Text Touch-Up tool to fix it. It took hours over the space of several days. But I finally had a version with no weird spaces. I uploaded the new files—even though I knew it would cost $25 per version to change the interior after I had Approved it.

The second set of e-proofs came in and I vowed to go through the text this time, not just flip through. And I found more space issues. They were more apparent in the e-proof because the font was slightly thinner, enlarging the space between letters. I checked the file I had uploaded. Yup, there they were—not as glaring as the ones I had fixed, but noticeable now that I was attuned to them.

So I fixed the PDF/X again. More (but fewer) hours. Another upload (but this time no fee because I was still in the Approval process).

Third set of e-proofs. I combed through the proof and all was looking good—until page 167. I found a space I missed. And another space on page 304. And another on page 338. But that’s all. Just three spaces.

Did I go in and fix them again?

Yes, I did. (You knew I would, right?) And I also found another space I had missed, and a misspelled name that had escaped both the copyeditor and me. And then I uploaded PDF/X #4.

I am waiting for this set of e-proofs, but I think I have finally gotten to where this result is “good enough.” Nothing can ever be perfect, so there comes a time when you need to let it go. I am at that point (barring some glaring error) with this project. I have spent all the time I want in getting this as close to perfect as I can. No doubt some of you are thinking I have spent far too much time on it, given the small rate of return I expect. But I think my time was worth it. Why?

Because publishing is a business and everything I put out reflects on my brand.

Everything.

So I have to make it good.

 

What do you think? Am I conscientious or completely obsessive? When do you get to feeling that it’s “good enough”?

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Posted by: Kerry Gans | June 19, 2014

Publisher Edits Done: What Next?

My journey towards publishing took another step this past weekend. I took advantage of being childfree to delve deep and finish the edits my publisher had sent me for my novel OZCILLATION. After working on them for weeks, I could hardly believe when I made the final change and hit Save.

I sent them off to my editor with much jubilation.

So what now? There will be at least one more round of edits. As my editor explained, the first round is for the “lumps”—the bigger picture things that need to be smoothed out. Such as extending the ending, tweaking the voice, adding more depth to the world. The next round will be a “polish” edit, focusing more on the nit-picky details of grammar and word choice and things like that. I suppose, if necessary, we would do a third, but hopefully that won’t be needed.

We are also starting to move into the marketing side of things. Most importantly, do we keep the title or change it? I personally like OZCILLATION for a number of reasons, but if we can come up with a more market-friendly title that resonates with me, I am not opposed to changing it. I am terrible at coming up with titles, so I hope the publishers have more ideas!

I am starting to work behind the scenes for when we need to start the book buzz process. I am getting my website and blog revamped. I want to work on a Teacher’s Guide and Book Club questions. I am trying to network with librarians, teachers, parents, and kids to see how I can fulfill some need for them while getting word out about my book.

There’s so much to do! The journey continues into uncharted territory.

Any published authors out there who can suggest other things I should be thinking about/working on?

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