Characters Make the Book

Writing books is a chore. Yep, it does not just happen—it takes work. Obviously there is the mental issue—no that’s not saying you have to be “mental” to write books—but; okay, it helps. Before writing you have to have an idea for a book. Let’s say you want to write a mystery. You have to have a plot—or maybe several. Is it a murder mystery? Who was killed and why and by whom? Of course there must be characters—some of my books may have thirty or more —each needs to be developed to fit the story and described to the reader.

If you read my blog you know that I claim the characters write the book—just a little BS there. The characters drive the story; but they are directed. As you write, the characters take on their own existence and reactions in the book are based on those characters and how they would respond to what is happening. Of course they don’t write the book—that task falls to the author. Hours and hours of writing.

The characters make the book—usually more than the plot. People read books about people. My focus has always been on the characters. Often these fictional actors are a mixture of people I’ve known or, even in small ways, myself. Of course many of the characters are completely made up to fit the needs of the story.

The character I’m currently writing about is Doctor Hightower. He’s a man of mystery living in a small town in the foothills outside of Denver. He’s an attorney and apparently a doctor of some sort. But the most interesting aspect of this reclusive man is that he has discovered the fountain of youth—or at least a laboratory created substitute. Through the whims of happenstance, he was in the right place at the right time to stumble into a chance for everlasting life. That gift was accompanied by the tragic loss of his greatest love and the pain of a life of loneliness and grief—a never ending life.

So here is a character, who has no resemblance to anyone I knew—seldom ran into folks who claimed to be hundreds of years old—well wait a minute, there was that time in a bar in El Paso, never mind; that is another story. Dr. Hightower sure isn’t me. So a character that I’m not familiar with—how do you write about this unique person. Easy answer –you make it up.

I’ve never met a famous author, I know some people who write but they write mostly non-fiction, historical stuff. I often think about the great authors of the 1800s and early 1900s and the amazingly long novels they wrote, by hand, about the human condition. Some of these works explored the misery that existed for so many people; and yet more often than not these writers were usually well off—often from elite, wealthy families. One of these authors in particular fascinates me—Victor Hugo. His two greatest works were Les Misérables, 1862, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, 1831.

These stories take us into the underworld of misery and injustice that existed for most people at the time. How does someone like Hugo write with such detail about something he had not experienced. What I have read is that he did research. For Les Miserables he visited some of the horrible prisons that existed at the time and talked to men who had no hope. But research is just observation and data gathering—he was still able from a position of privilege to describe the misery that existed in a way that touched everyone who read his books. He made it up.

A fiction author is someone who makes up stories. There is always an element of truth buried in every fictional account. Maybe it’s the author’s experience, or maybe observation, or maybe it just popped into the head of the author from some place we don’t yet understand.

Children are very good at making things up, even creating their own worlds; but are often scolded by adults for this creative act. Story telling becomes a no-no. A good fictional author may be the result of non-scolding parents who loved their children’s stories or maybe these authors are just good liars.

PS. I first read Hugo’s books as Classic’s Illustrated comic books. These comic books from the 1950’s had a great impact on my life—I still recall the wonderful feeling of reading these great stories. Obviously Hugo’s writing was dumbed down for kids—but the overall impact was still there. Both Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame were available as comics and they were two of my favorites. The sadness of the stories had a great impact on me. I spent a great deal time thinking about how these people lived and must have suffered. Why other humans would be so cruel was very troubling. I still don’t know the answer.

Time to Write?

One of the recommendations I keep reading about on how to be a successful author is to write more books—one every three months is often suggested as a standard—why not one every week? In some ways it seems absurd to measure the success of a creative enterprise based on the time you spend creating. But, of course, what is being measured is more about marketing and the short cycle of attention that demands something new every day. Having a new book every three months would maximize marketing dollars and increase the author’s visibility so it must be good. Or is it?


I write quickly, when I’m writing, so producing a book every three months would be within my capability. But as an Indie author I spend about as much time dealing with other aspects of book writing as I do writing. The details of publishing and the time consumed by marketing will usually be about the same as writing. Of course someone else could do that—but I’m not in the position to hire someone for those other tasks. That probably means that two to three books a year is about my limit.


Usually I’m carrying around with me every day at least two, sometimes ten ideas for a book. They just sort of bubble around inside my head until one day I begin the story. Very little prep work –I just start. There are authors who will spend almost as much time preparing to write as they do writing—I really admire this approach and wish I could do it. Prepare a detailed outline, develop a story board for scenes, list all of the important characters, even write character descriptions—wow, this is so impressive. Authors also do extensive research on locations, the elements of law in a book, details about specific issues related to crime, the courts, jails, anything you can think of; it is amazing the details that will be in a book—even a book of fiction. This is not how I work—I wish I could. It just sounds so orderly and efficient.


I have said this before and it still sounds a little goofy, but it seems to me the characters write my books. I start the process and lay out the basics but often the story takes on a whole new approach as I’m writing. The characters by their actions will dictate how a story progresses. I didn’t plan it—it just happened.

The first book I wrote, The Bootlegger’s Legacy, was not going to be about a bootlegger (obviously that was not even the title of the book when I began) it was going to be about two normal guys, honest business-people who found themselves in financial trouble and decided to do a drug deal to save their businesses and their families. That idea came from something I had actually seen happen. From day one that kernel of an idea grew, changed, and then exploded into something entirely different. It was still two guys dealing with financial and family issues but it became a different story. A much better story I might add—with almost all of it made-up. The kernel of fact turned into something unknown to me until I started writing.


Some writers need the details planned in advance, for me that would be a serious mistake. I need to start an adventure and see where it leads. That first book taught me to write on the fly and see where it goes. But I still envy the writers who can plan and devise details in advance of writing—it just sounds so organized and mature.


That three-month cycle of writing books is a recent ideal, no doubt, based on something to do with Amazon algorithms. Authors are infamous for taking as long as it takes to write books. Many famous authors took what in Amazon terms would be a lifetime to write a book. Margaret Mitchell took ten years to write Gone with the Wind—and supposedly only began writing because she was bored and never intended it to be published. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the Hobbit and was asked to write a follow up. Some seventeen years later he finished The Lord of the Rings. The manuscript was 9,250 pages which his publisher decided to break up into three books. Based on the Amazon driven standard of four books a year Tolkien would have written 68 books during that time not just three. Maybe the 68 books would have all been great; but somehow I think we’re better off with the three Tolkien actually wrote, no matter how long it took.


Since I’m not Tolkien or Mitchell I will stick with my goal of two to three books a year because it’s what I can do and it seems to work on Amazon—which I guess is a good thing?


PS. The 9,000 plus pages of Tolkien’s manuscript could easily have been 25 books rather than 3. Must have been a massive editing job. Wonder what was cut? I cannot imagine writing that many pages and then have it chopped down to maybe less than 20% of what I wrote. I think I would have been cursing the editor. From one write-on-the-fly guy to another –maybe Tolkien should have planned better.

Hey, whad’ya think?

I think of Indie authors as being lonely people. Not that they don’t have friends and family it’s just that most people don’t want to talk to them because all they care about is their silly books. They keep asking have you read my latest book, what did you think about the cover, did you see that review I got….on and on. So people start to avoid them. Wisely so.

But still; have you read my latest book? What did you think of the cover? Yep, I’m an Indie author desperate for information. Who are my readers? Are they male, female, under 40 over 60? Which of my books have the most appeal, why? What should a good cover look like. What are readers willing to pay for an e-book, how much does it matter? Information/data –it drives everything. If you had good data you could make better decisions on marketing, cover design –every aspect of writing books.

I currently have nine books published; it would be great if you could share with me any information you have about my writing. Which of my books have you read? What do you think about the covers? Just anything that might help me understand how other people view what I’m doing–it would be helpful. Or maybe just a comment of books in general, what you like; don’t like? What you’re willing to pay?


Reading for Health?

Reprinted from May Newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter on the web site tedclifton.com.

Most of the male members of my family do not read books. And maybe only about half of the female members read. When I realized this some years ago I was shocked. I’ve always been an avid reader and, since I love living in my bubble, assumed most everyone read a few dozen books a year; but not so. Now to be fair I do have relatives who read—but it’s the exception not the rule. And especially men do not read books; why is that?

I’m sure most of you have heard that there are health benefits to reading books. Here is an excerpt from an article by Andrew Merle for Mission.org which lists these benefits.

Reading has been shown to do all of the following:

Reduce stress levels (by 68 percent!)
Preserve brain health and lower the risk of Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Alleviate anxiety and depression
Help you fall asleep
Increase life expectancy
Boost happiness and overall life satisfaction

Reading accomplishes all of this by activating your mind, providing an escape from day-to-day life, and offering refreshed perspective for life’s challenges.

Some of my more obtuse relatives might say that they can get most of that from watching TV—most particularly the help you fall asleep part. But research contradicts that. Apparently reading has a unique effect on the brain and it’s hard to find other activities that provide this level of benefit.

Of course I write books so maybe I just want people to read so they will buy my books—the answer to that is; yes. But even if I didn’t, there sure seems to be some major potential benefits to reading and if you’re lucky you might even enjoy the story. So why don’t people read?

Maybe it’s just the effort required. Reading is not a passive activity. Now it’s also not an exhausting activity– like riding a bike; so when I say not passive, it is that it takes thought and thought is not passive. Some of my books may have two or three plot lines with twenty or more characters—you have to pay attention to follow the story. That is the joy of a mystery—all of the characters, clues and suspects coming together for that surprise ending—the one you knew all along. That is fun and enjoyable but it does take effort.

So now we have the answer. Non-readers are lazy. Well this certainly fits several of my relatives; but I don’t think that is all. I think for many it is that they never enjoyed reading. They didn’t read books growing up. Books that they treasured and read many times. I haven’t tested this but I have the feeling that many non-readers just didn’t read books as a kid–they didn’t form that habit of reading. Sure mom or dad read books to them on occasion; but as they got older they did not graduate to reading on their own. They didn’t read the Boxcar Children’s books, they didn’t read The Hardy Boys, nor Tom Sawyer nor The Three Musketeers. Or even maybe they didn’t love comic books—I know I did. Some of my favorite kid memories involved reading Classic Illustrated comic books—okay I’m weird. They also didn’t read those wonderful books as a young adult Catcher in the Rye, Sherlock Holmes, Treasure Island, Lord of the Flies, and more and more and more.

So now they don’t read because they really never did. They never felt that wonderful joy and comfort of your favorite book waiting for you when you got home from school. Books were all about school, not fun or enjoyment, just work.

The sad part of this story is that all of those people who don’t read are not teaching their children to read. A big event will be a movie costing $60 for a family that last two or so hours. The movies are so aggressive it makes us even more mentally passive. An e-book today is dirt cheap and will last many more hours than a movie and could last a lifetime. I know the joy of reading can last a lifetime and bring tremendous benefits.

So my final thought is that you should give someone you care about a book. It is good for their health and very cheap. Did I mention that I sell books?

Thanks everyone for being a reader!

Reader Reviews

Arriving sometime in 2019 – see Schedule comments below

Yes, the latest reader review post is back. Mostly I get great reviews and it is immensely appreciated. On occasion I will receive a less than positive review; yeah, I know, hard to believe. Reviewers are tying to be helpful to their fellow readers and have every right to say most anything they want. The majority of my negative reviews are about language. Apparently I use vile language and have a potty-mouth–thanks for the review mom I will try to do better.

I think those reviews are very helpful to me and the potential reader. If certain words offend you then I don’t want you to read my books–because those words are in there; I don’t think a lot of them, but some readers seem offended by only a few. So its best if you are warned by reviewers that the language might offend. I would do that myself if there was some mechanism like movies to attach a rating.

On the other hand I do get some strange reviews that offer little if any benefit.

The latest strange review has to do with an upset reader who complained because there were advertisements for my books buried in the text of the book–and she asked “who would do something like that?” My guess would be no one. An author would not, they would know it would be stupid and just irritate the reader. You might put something in the back but not in the actual book. So how did the ads get in the book? Beats me. I contacted Amazon but did not get a meaningful reply. But my guess is it has something to do with Amazon and their reader sticking ads in inappropriate places. Why would they do that? Once again just a guess, but it would be because they can and it works. One reader might find it offensive but another might just click and generate revenue for Amazon.

Let’s be clear. I don’t begrudge Amazon any revenue generating scheme they come up with–it’s there web site and they should be able to do whatever works for them. As an author if I take offense I have the option to take my greatly in-demand book business somewhere else. More than likely Amazon wouldn’t notice and it would only harm me–so, I will live with a few snags here and there.

It does seem unfair a reader now hates me for something I had nothing to do with. I’m sure that reader will be more than happy to share her thoughts about the idiot author hiding advertisements in his prose with anyone who will listen. They will collectively wonder what kind of moron does things like that–obviously a bad writer who thinks he can secretly steal money from unsuspecting readers. What has the world come to–plus he uses vulgar language.

Well, dear reader, I should apologize for whatever happened; after-all, the book does have my name on it. But let me assure you, I did not write a book with an ad in it. But like so much in life, apparently I cannot control everything that happens with my book once it ventures into the cyber world.

Schedules

Now here is a subject no one cares about; schedules. For much of my working life I met schedules everyday. I was a CPA and lived in the world of hard deadlines. These were not if you can possibly have it done by then deadlines–these were you will be fired if you miss them deadlines.

Now I operate in a different world, where deadlines are often just suggestions. Not sure how it is in your world but missing deadlines drives me crazy. I’m a planner. This has benefits in some things and drawbacks in others. But I plan my day, my months activity, what I’ll accomplish this year, next year–it is disgusting. No, just go with the flow for me–it must be planned.

So I work on my detailed plan for the whole year and somewhere around the middle of January something I need from someone else to accomplish my plan does not arrive on time. My plan is garbage. Less than one month into the year–it is wasted.

So after the beginning of the year fell apart I decided I would just relax, enjoy my free time and I will work when the other stuff shows up. Easy going me–never stressed; schedules don’t matter. No more nasty emails asking where the hell such and such is. Have tried that for a few months and surprise; nothing has been done on schedule, stuff is already months behind–I have stopped working. Now I don’t think this is anyone’s fault but my own. I was a certain kind of person and because that seemed to annoy others I tried to become someone else–didn’t work. My writing has stopped because I can’t stick to a schedule.

Never in the past did I recognize how important it had been for me to stick to a schedule; pushing myself to meet artificially set deadlines. But now without them I have fallen apart. The only way around this is to go back to my schedule setting ways and stop dealing with people who cannot meet my deadlines. Could be a lonely existence but everything will be ready on time.

Book reviews

Like many things in our world today consumer reviews have a major impact in buying decisions–from where you eat to what kind of car you buy.  And of course they are a factor in decisions regarding what books you read.

In the past we looked to “professional” critics to provide us with information about books, movies, plays and restaurants.  Today the consumer’s opinion is king.  I know I use these opinions in my purchase decision process.  When I am shopping on-line the consumer reviews are almost always something I read–and while I will ignore the ones who seem to be out of line with everybody else I do look at both good and bad.

If you have had a chance to read The Bootlegger’s Legacy it would be very helpful for you to contribute your review to one or more of the on-line retailer sites.