writing

Improve Your Authorial Voice Not By Writing, But By Watching by J.C. Hutchins

Note: This post originally appeared on the website WriterUnboxed. This is the one of several WU guest posts I’ll reprint here on my site.

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I love reading prose fiction -- but in my heart of hearts, I'm a movie junkie. It's a brilliant way to economically tell stories, and I enjoy the creative constraints the medium has: running time, MPAA ratings, budget. The mission? To cram as much narrative -- both spoken and unspoken -- into the frame as possible.

Notice that I said "unspoken." That's key. I believe prose fiction writers can easily learn about voice by watching and studying movies -- especially when they pay attention to those unspoken bits.

Writing great books and short stories hinges greatly on your authorial voice -- but always remember that your voice requires tonal flexibility. This can be defined by a character's point of view, the pacing of a scene, or what's happening in that scene. Thoughtful characters and slower-paced scenes can permit a more lyrical authorial voice; peppy characters and action sequences often demand something else.

Now I can't tell you how to craft your voice; I believe your personal world view defines most of that. I also believe that the best authorial voices don't attract attention to themselves. But if you're looking for ways to appropriately use your voice for characters and scenes, I suggest popping in a DVD, muting the volume, and watching what unfolds.

Don't watch the actors. Try to ignore the blitz-cut editing. Forget trying to decipher what's being said. Instead, look for what's happening in the frame overall -- mostly the use of colors, color saturation and lighting. In the hands of filmmaking masters, these techniques represent the invisible art of cinema: the ability to wordlessly evoke emotion. To me, they represent the "voice" of the overall film, or a particular scene.

I think there’s wisdom there ... and if you look for patterns, you'll find them. For instance, most films these days depict workplace interiors -- no matter how much sunshine is streaming through the locale’s windows -- as cold, emotionless, antiseptic places. Filmmakers achieve this by clever lighting, or by processing the film (or digital footage) in such a way to suck the color from the moving images. The result is often a gray- or blue-tinged scene, with its characters looking as happy as a herd of zombies.

This is an immediate, visually tonal manipulation of the story. A word of dialogue may never be uttered, and yet we're emotionally steered in a particular direction. Our brains "get it," even if we as viewers never consciously get it.

Contrast that with movie scenes that take place in a happy home. There's often lots of lush, warm-colored wood, and amber, creamy tones in the frame. Subconsciously, our brains do the math: our society associates this palate of colors with warmth and comfort. Again, the "voice" of the unfolding narrative invisibly connects the overall setting with how the audience should be feeling.

We've all seen the original Star Wars movie. Contrast the earthy, oil-stained interior of heroic Han Solo's Millennium Falcon spaceship with the spartan hallways of the villains' Death Star battle station. This visual information alone conveys everything we need to know: the good guys are scrappy, underfunded ragamuffins ... and the bad guys are (literally) as imperious as it gets.

If you can make the esoteric leap from the visual voice of cinema to the narrative voice of prose fiction, you'll notice ways to appropriately use your authorial voice when handling specific characters, scenes or events within a scene. Just as oil stains would be forbidden in the halls of the Death Star, certain words and writerly observations would appear incongruous in particular scenes.

Is a violence-packed action sequence best served by lyrical, multisyllabic flowery prose? Probably not. Does a contemplative scene work best with clipped, one- or two-word paragraphs? Probably not. Using creative flexibility in your narrative's tone, vocabulary and sentence structure is absolutely critical to capturing the emotional core of your story. You may have a distinctive authorial voice, but be sure to tweak it as needed, depending on what's happening in your tale.

If you can do that, you’ll control the invisible -- yet critical -- art of emotionally moving people.

So pop in a few DVDs, and dial down the volume. See what filmmaking maestros do with color, set design and other visual cues, and try applying those tonal techniques to your own writing voice.

--J.C.

The Ebook Will Evolve. So Should Authors. by J.C. Hutchins

Note: This post originally appeared on the website E2BU. E2BU, aka the Enhanced Ebook University, educates authors and publishers on the creative and business potential of enhanced ebooks -- electronic books that transcend traditional reading experiences by incorporating video, online links and other multimedia elements into the narrative. Enhanced ebooks are an emerging storytelling form. I've yet to see an enhanced ebook that captures my vision for the platform's incredible narrative potential. I hope this post, which was originally written for authors and publishers, gets readers and creators thinking about the platform's potential.

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Here's some enhanced e-book wisdom for my author colleagues: It all starts with you.

I'm approaching this from a fiction writer's perspective, though non-fiction writers can benefit from this advice. Prepare your work's enhanced ebook experience from the very beginning, as you conceive your book. As you plot and write, always remember that you’re now armed with countless opportunities to push your narrative beyond words. Take advantage of that, and the many emotionally-resonant strengths other media have over text.

Presently, enhanced content is often an afterthought, tacked on at the end of a production process as a blingy differentiator. We are now in an age of storytelling where that model is practically insulting to a reader. These days, there are few good reasons for creators to ignore the potential of integrating resonant multimedia elements into their stories.

From my perspective as an online- and transmedia-savvy creator, "enhanced" content should make a meaningful narrative contribution to the main story.  Consider the narrative impact of experiencing fictional family photo albums, sci-fi computer dossiers, fake newspaper clippings, video blogs from your characters, etc.  Every genre can benefit from this story-centric approach, and can move readers in new ways.

Make this content mission-critical to the narrative experience. Cleverly devise ways to structure your story so that photographs you choose to fleetingly describe in text (for instance) are visible via the enhanced ebook. Inject visual clues/foreshadowing into those photos that will pay off later in the story; savvy readers will be delighted. If you’re an indie creator rolling your own enhanced ebooks, take advantage of the cheap and free online tools at your disposal. Get free phone numbers via Google Voice and use them in your stories -- readers can leave voicemails to their favorite characters. Is there a crime scene video that's heating up your cop thriller? Include it in your enhanced experience.

Tightly integrate these transmedia opportunities into your stories. Don’t do what publishers are doing now. Don’t create a so-called enhanced experience that plays merely like a novel with some multimedia elements wedged into the narrative for the sake of spiffiness. Readers are smart, and they’ll smell that rat a mile away. They'll probably feel like they’ve wasted their money. That's bad storytelling, and bad for business.

Avoid self-congratulatory behind the scenes content such as author bios, old drafts of your manuscripts and the like. Only longtime/hardcore fans are into that stuff ... and most authors don’t have longtime/hardcode fans. There's very little value in this content; certainly not enough to charge the premium most enhanced ebooks command. Give people what they want: world-enhancing, emotionally-resonant fiction in various media.

Speaking from experience: If your funds and production capabilities are limited and you fear your enhanced elements appear amateurish, slyly manage audience expectations in your text by referring to it as feeling home-brewed. The Blair Witch Project did this to great effect. This way, the videos you shoot with an affordable Flip cam or cell phone don't feel cheap -- they feel authentic. Same goes for photos, and audio recordings.

If you self-publish an enhanced ebook and it becomes a viral or sales hit, know that a mainstream publisher will come a-callin'. An editor will wave a check under your nose, and you'll probably be appropriately wooed. Awesome. But as part of your negotiations, make certain to insist that the publisher create "more professional" versions of that enhanced content, if you have concerns about its quality. Make it a deal-breaker if you have to. Remember, you're doing the publisher a favor by signing on the dotted line, not vice-versa.

We've yet to see a truly resonant enhanced e-novel experience, but this is probably mostly due to ever-conservative publishers being unwilling to pony up cash to get experimental -- and authors embracing the self-defeating notion that they "can only write books." The former is short-sighted. The latter is preposterous, and insulting to one's creative abilities.

Embracing multiple narrative media ensures that you're not just building "enhanced" content -- you're learning new creative and artistic skills, which will improve your life and work.

I believe a killing can be made in this space, but it requires resources -- measured either in publisher dollars or indie creator sweat equity -- a lot of beyond-the-page creative thinking, and a willingness to embrace risk.

Are publishers willing to pull the trigger? They've been pretty gun-shy so far. As with most evolutions in storytelling and entertainment, it'll probably require an indie creator to prove the model works ... or a publisher identifying a qualified creator or two, paying them, and making a business leap of faith.

--J.C.

How To Become A Better (And Future-Friendly) Storyteller by J.C. Hutchins

Note: This post originally appeared on the website WriterUnboxed. This is the first of several WU guest posts I'll reprint here on my site.

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I submit this for your consideration: Expand and improve your media vocabulary. It might positively impact your career now, and certainly will in the future.

I define "media vocabulary" as the various media one uses to tell resonant stories. Since most readers of this blog are authors, I reckon we're fluent in the vocabulary of text-based storytelling. But how many of us have more than a pedestrian consumer's knowledge of other media such as video, audio, photography, or graphic design? How many of us use those media in our stories?

Based on anecdotal and professional experience, I believe in my marrow that now is the time for talespinners to get savvy with several storytelling media. Within years, I expect we'll see an explosive rise of enhanced ebooks, app-based fiction and transmedia narratives that will leverage technologies and trends that have already become mainstream.

Fret not, hand-wringing wordherding purists: These multimedia, aka "transmedia" -- or as I sometimes call them, "mergemedia" -- stories will never replace a printed book or text-only ebook. But publishers will soon get into the enhanced narrative business in a big way, and will keenly quest for stories that organically incorporate disparate media into cohesive, resonant narratives.

And who better than you to deliver that very thing? You'll be a hot tamale, on the front lines of a business trend that'll reinvent the way audiences experience stories.

Few authors are prepared for this dramatic storytelling shift. I'm blessed to say I'm one of them. I recently co-wrote a novel that included tangible artifacts that came with the book -- real-life, convincing items such as IDs, business cards, family photos and more. These artifacts had clues hidden within them. When readers combined clues in the novel's text with clues in the artifacts, they could experience more of the story in other media: audio phone messages, fake character blogs, websites of locales mentioned in the book, and more. They learned aspects of the story my novel's hero never discovered -- including a beyond-the-book twist ending.

I've dabbled in video storytelling. I've written screenplays for an animated web series. I was Head Writer for an immersive transmedia online narrative that promoted a Discovery Channel show. I've recorded my own audio fiction, been a voice actor for more than a dozen other audio fiction projects, incorporated photography and graphic design into my stories ... and even crafted book promotions that invited my fans to become "patients" in my fictional insane asylum.

Am I exceptionally gifted in all of these media? Of course not. But I'm clever, creative and curious enough to know it's in the best interest of my career to bust beyond any self-inflicted Perception Prison and just be a "writer" or "novelist." I'm a multifaceted Storyteller. If I can't stellarly execute a particular multimedia storytelling element, I'll ask around until I find someone who can help realize it for me. That's what the Internet is for.

I understand, as you should, that different media convey different narrative information and evoke different emotional reactions. We, as storytellers, should absolutely leverage that to our advantage. Consider this:

  • A smartly-crafted paragraph about an elderly woman's house burning down
  • A photograph of her porcelain doll collection by the window, ablaze
  • Video of those doll's faces shattering from the intense heat
  • An audio recording of the woman wailing at her loss, with the roar of the inferno and sirens in the background

Now consider these related -- yet unique and equally emotionally resonant -- elements presented together in a cohesive, organically-constructed narrative, experienced on a hand-held device. An iPad. An iPhone. The next generation Kindle. A laptop. Doesn't matter.

What matters is this isn't a gimmick. This is, very likely, the future of storytelling.

By dipping your toes into media other than text -- be it writing for the screen or comic book, envisioning cool opportunities to take your story "beyond words" and into a medium that appeals to an entirely different sense (and evoke unique emotional reactions), or developing and deploying story-enhancing online destinations (such as a fictional company's website) -- you're expanding and improving your media vocabulary. This will expand and improve your storytelling skills, and will differentiate you from the thousands of other writers who merely put one word in front of the other.

Differentiation is good for business. As I wrote this post, I received an email from an independent game developer who wanted to hire me for some voice acting work. That opportunity never would've occurred had I not expanded my media vocabulary to include audio storytelling years ago. (I said yes to the offer. That's paid work, homes.)

Same goes for my transmedia novel work and the Discovery Channel gig. I created narratives using several media, became well-known for them, and was hired to participate in those projects. I can't guarantee that you’ll experience similar opportunities, but your chances are hella better when you get experimental and go beyond your creative comfort zone.

How do you start down this path? I won't waste precious words, or your time, with a technical how-to. We're nowhere near ready for that. Instead, let me offer some thoughts on how to get your creative mind into the philosophy fueling my perspective. You’ve spent years crafting tales with words. You need to think beyond words.

Noodle on your work in progress, and then ask yourself questions such as:

  • Are there ways to incorporate narrative portals to, say, a website where more narrative information can be delivered in an unconventional way? (Such as a character's video blog.)
  • Can you leverage real-life everyday objects and conventional behavior in new and interesting ways? (Such as including a phone number in your story --which is actually a free Google Voice number you've registered -- for people to call and hear a message from the antagonist.)
  • Are there familiar items that can enhance your narrative by adding an element of "real world" credibility to your story? (Such as fake classified blueprints, viewable at a password-protected website -- a site mentioned in your story.)
  • Can you deliver a kind of real world interaction between your audience and characters? (Such as a blog written by your character, who responds to fans who comment on her posts.)

I'm scratching the surface here -- only your personal knowledge of your story and creative curiosity can determine if what you're presently writing can benefit from these "beyond the page" experience-based narrative tools. But my point should be clear: these narrative opportunities exist, and can be downright cheap (or free) to execute.

We storytellers now stand at the convergence of several world-changing trends: cheap tools to help us create multimedia story elements … increasingly available (and affordable) Internet access for consumers … portable digital devices that can talk to the Web and play that multimedia … and an always-on 24/7 resource (the Web) that can put us in touch with creators who can assist us, should we not have the skills to execute our projects on our own.

There's never been a better time in history to be a storyteller -- and there will likely never be a better time for you to become a first mover in what will soon become a prosperous storytelling space. If you're reading the same writing on the wall that I am, you'll want to start expanding and improving your media vocabulary.

You don't need to be an expert. You just need to be creative, and ask for help if you can't execute on your own.

Don't let the future of storytelling pass you by. It's already here.

--J.C.

The Best Home For Your Words by J.C. Hutchins

To my hyper-connected New Media writer colleagues: Watch this wise video from the always-awesome Chris Brogan. In it, he talks about spending gobs of time on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and how that investment may pull folks away from other, more important endeavors.

My takeaway from Chris' video is a brass-knuckled buzzkill for Twitter-enamored wordherders, but it's one worth considering: Every sentence you post in the fleeting ether of Twitter and Facebook is one less sentence you're dedicating to your creative work. If you're serious about writing, completing, selling and publishing stories, the best home for your words and creative energy is always your work in progress.

Your creative project will have a permanence, meaning and impact that those tweets and status updates never will. Tweeting about writing isn't writing. Tweeting critiques about others' fiction doesn't put more words on your own pages.

Social media networking sites do indeed provide wonderful places to converse about creativity -- but don't let their cozy, comfortable confines become a lullaby for your own creative efforts.

If you're serious about completing your creative work, publishing it, and getting paid for it, now's a good time to recommit yourself to those goals and funnel your words into the best home for them: your work in progress. The most resonant writing doesn't have 140-character limits.

--J.C.