heyjamie

Jamie Jo Hoang - Author & World Traveler

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Twitter for Authors

As a self-published author I turned to Twitter as a way of promoting my book BLUE SUN, YELLOW SKY, but over the past year, it sort of shifted into something more.

Twitter is a great tool for authors. Not only do we get to practice marketing 140 characters at a time, it’s a great way for us to send out 140 character snippets throughout the day. I look at it as short bursts of creativity.

However, if you’re expecting Twitter to sell your book, I hate to break it to you, but it’s probably not going to work. A year and a half, and 48,000 followers later here’s what I learned about using Twitter as an author.

Treat Twitter like a giant networking tool. I began by following as many writer’s as I could find every day. At first only a few of them followed me back, but then I made a dramatic shift in the way I used Twitter. Instead of pumping out blurbs or advertisements for my book every day, I began posting content with “added value.” This means I began posting content for the benefit of others.

As a writer, the things that really interest me have to do with writing. So I started looking up great writing quotes and posting those along with a short comment about the quote. Low and behold, now not only did writers start following me back, they started finding me through the retweets of my followers.

And then, a great thing started happening, people actually came to my Twitter page to look at all my Tweets and there they were met with my banner which advertises my book. Because they had an interest in my Tweets, I now had a greater chance of getting them to purchase my book. Yay! A handful of my reviews on Amazon, are from people who found my book through Twitter.

But I should remind you here, that I don’t sell a ton of books this way. However; that’s not the value of Twitter for me. Again, it’s more of a networking tool between myself and the hundreds of thousands of other writer’s out there.

Recently, having gained over 45k followers, I decided to see if I could help create a shift in the indie market. So every Sunday I host an event called ReTweet Sunday, where I tweet indie and small press books to my followers.

I love this event, because I get to see so many books pass through my Twitter feed and I occasionally buy one that interests me. Every one of us indie authors is fighting for FaceTime with readers surfing the internet, but sometimes we forget that writer’s are readers too. Very veracious ones at that!

Also, we indie authors are in this together so I think it’s important that we support each other by reading indie books. Actually, if I’m being honest I was severely disappointed in the books I’d randomly chosen to read by indie authors who’s path I crossed on Twitter. That was, however, until I learned how vet the indie books by looking for seals from book award contests and by reading the negative reviews left by other readers.

Why the negative reviews? I find they tend to be more helpful. Glowing 5-star reviews are great, but a 3-star review that highlight’s something I might actually like, has way more sway in getting me to read a book.

Another added benefit of using Twitter is that my feed, which is full of motivational tweets for writers, often times inspires my to write too! And anything that pushes me to get my fingers to the keyboard and working is a good thing in my opinion.

South Park, James Cameron, and Writing

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last 5 years you’ve probably seen this video South Park made of James Cameron. They’re clearly making fun of the fact that he has to actually “do” the things he makes movies about and that he, in fact, does everything. Cameron has a thirst for adventure like no one else and the end result of that curiosity are his incredible movies.

My dad rarely ever goes to see a movie. Mostly because his grasp of the English language isn’t good enough for him to understand or catch all of the subtext or innuendo’s. But when I took him to see Avatar, he totally got it. Moreover, he really enjoyed the visuals. I think for someone who has known poverty, and lived through a war, he was blown away by the magic on screen. Afterwards, he kept asking me, “How do people get ideas to come up with things like that?” My snarky response was, “I don’t know Dad, if I did do you think I’d still be living here? Nope I’d be a millionaire exploring the seven seas on my yacht.” “What’s a yat?” he asked. I sighed, “A boat. I’d be on my own boat.” “Oh,” he says, “Well hurry up and figure it out.” Thanks Dad.

His question did pique my curiosity though and when I googled James Cameron I found that it wasn’t just that he had a more vivid imagination that I did, it was that he had explored so much more of the world than I had. In my quick google search of “James Cameron” I found the TED Talk he gave below. In his 17-minute talk I learned that he convinced the studios to make Titanic because he wanted to go deep sea diving. The love story and box office millions were an aside. As a diver myself, his exploration of the deep sea hit a nerve with me.

As writers, we create worlds that other’s get to live in, but our creative minds need fuel. A car doesn’t run without gasoline and we can’t write without inspiration. This is the fun part of our jobs! Yet, we’re made to feel like we’re undeserving of the “fun research” because what we do for research is what other people call “entertainment” or “vacation.” But here’s the thing. James Cameron could never have made Titanic the way he did without that deep sea dive. Nor do I think Avatar would have existed without his incessant need to explore the world.

Exploring the things that draw on our senses is what opens our imagination to creating worlds beyond what anyone thought possible. I think there’s a reason writers are usually slightly ahead of our technological time. We not only see things, we want to experience them for ourselves. I personally am fascinated with the passage of time. The lifespan of a seed becoming a flower is immensely interesting to me, and the details people seem to love so much in my writing comes from caring–albeit, a ridiculous amount–about the process.

So, I hereby give all writers–ok, you don’t have to be a writer–permission to: eat at that expensive restaurant, travel to an exotic location, zip-line through the Amazon, climb to the highest peak, dive to the deepest part of the ocean, and just do whatever. Say yes to everything and see where it takes you!

A Visit to Pablo Naruda’s House in Santiago, Chile

 

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La Chascona–Pablo Narudas house in Santiago, Chile. Fun fact: There are two identical doors at this house, one for him and one for his mistress.

 

A few months ago I went to a beautiful wedding in Uruguay (a story that still needs to be written). From Los Angeles I had a daunting 24-hour flight, which included two layovers before reaching my final destination. The first stop was a quick drop down in Lima, Peru where 70% of the passengers disembarked and new people took their place. Pretty uneventful. Next stop, Santiago. I had an 8-hour layover so I decided to go exploring. There was a bit of a rush in knowing I only had a few hours, was in foreign country where I could barely speak the language, and was risking missing my connecting flight–in other words, everything was awesome! Damn that Lego movie for having such a catchy tune.

Just after clearing customs I hesitated momentarily, then proceeded through the baggage claim area in search of a taxi company. After finding one, I tried to explain what I wanted (mostly with hand gestures and pointing): I needed a driver for 2 hours to take me to San Christobal Hill and Pablo Naruda’s House and then back to the airport. I showed the desk attendant google map printouts of the two places and drew stick figures of me and a taxi driver visiting each one then coming back to the airport. When she still didn’t understand, I cursed my 8th grade Spanish teacher. The poor desk attendant looked at me with a blank stare and just as I was about to call it quits and head back into the the airport, another girl approached saying she spoke ‘minimal’ English. “Well, we’re in luck because I speak minimal Spanish,” I said, and she laughed. I explained my situation again and this time was rewarded with an “Ah…” before she smiled and spoke in rapid Spanish to the attendant. A number was scribbled on a piece of paper: $12,000.

“TWELVE THOUSAND DOLLARS?” I exclaimed.

“Pesos,” she corrected me. Quickly, she calculated the conversion to US dollars and wrote $80 US on the paper. Okay! $80 I could manage. In fact, $80 for 3 hours in a cab seemed like a steal. (Side note: It’s not. My older sister, an obviously more seasoned traveler than I, would later tell me I was severely ripped off–no matter, I was on a high and having the time of my freaking life!)

When I met my driver, he never gave me his name, but for the sake of this story let’s call him Robert. Robert glanced at the 4 receipts I handed him and a look of confusion of crossed his face. Not again, I start to think. But he turned to me and said, “So you want to go to San Cristobal Hill, Pablo Naruda’s House, and then come back to the airport?”

“Yes!” I smiled. “You speak English?”

“So, so,” he said. “You speak Spanish?”

“Muy poquito. Very little,” I laughed.

It was about 7:45 a.m. local time and I was ready for the grand tour of Santiago, so imagine my surprise when we arrived at San Cristobal Hill only to find that they didn’t open until 8:30 a.m. Well crap. Robert told me it’s not a problem, we’ll just see Naruda’s house first. This sounded like a good plan until we arrived at the house, properly named La Chascona, and saw the sign that said, Open at 10:00 a.m. I was about 40 minutes into the trip and my wild solo excursion in a foreign country was turning out to be an epic fail.

“What do you want to do?” Robert asked me. I just paid $80 for his services so I hardly wanted him to just drive me back to the airport. I didn’t say anything for a while and racked my brain for a solution. A few minutes passed and I got the feeling he was becoming super annoyed with me but then he said, “I can take you to see the House of the President? And then probably San Cristobal will be open after.”

“Okay!” I shouted enthusiastically. There was a little guy in the back of my mind telling me he was about to charge me up the wazoo for this little detour, but I didn’t care. When else was I going to get the chance to explore Santiago? We hopped in the car and almost instantly Robert went from taxi driver to tour guide. He pointed out the national library, a famous cathedral, a huge indoor market–popular as a place to get a bite to eat after a heavy night of drinking. He told me if I ever came back I must be sure to check out a stall inside that sells the best crab in the world. Come to think of it, I was kind of hungry…but Robert had already gone above and beyond his duties so having him to pull over would’ve been asking to be abandoned in a foreign city. We pulled up to the President’s Palace, and he pointed out the guards surrounding the building and told me they were the most respected division of law enforcement. I told him they are were quite handsome and he laughed.

When I finally arrived at San Cristobal Hill he took me to the top, parked the car, and said he would a nap while I looked around. By this point, we had a pretty good rapport going so I was pretty sure he’s wasn’t going to leave me there; nevertheless, I looked for his car every time it was within view just to be safe. I hadn’t done a lot of research before coming to Santiago; to be honest, I wasn’t sure I had the guts to actually leave the airport until I did it. So all I knew was that San Cristobal Hill had the best view of the city and man, did it ever. Hundreds of thousands of buildings and roads all sprawled out in front of me. Behind me a staircase led further up the mountain and toward a large statue of Mary, complete with a mini chapel at the base of her feet. The main character in my novel, BLUE SUN, YELLOW SKY, visits Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, something I had yet to do, so as I stood beneath Mary I tried to imagine being in my character’s shoes. I could write an entire blog just about that experience so I’ll refrain from getting into it, but what I will say is this: as a first-time author it was affirming to know that my character’s experiences weren’t wrong.

Robert was in the driver seat playing a game on his phone when I returned to the car. At the sight of me, he shut off his phone with a smile and we headed back down the mountain to Pablo Naruda’s house. After paying a fee, I was handed a listening device that looked like a long skinny telephone before being ushered into a courtyard. There were about 14 stops on this tour of Naruda’s house, but I only had a few minutes before I risked missing my connecting flight so I decided halfway through the first description to skip to the next one. Big mistake. At the end of each section the narrator kindly tells you where to walk next. This left me wandering around the courtyard with a security guard eyeing me suspiciously. I turned down a wrong corridor and get scolded in Spanish, which ironically sounds a lot like a scolding in Vietnamese, but he pointed me in the direction I was supposed to go. I moved through the downstairs portion quickly, past the dining room, small bedroom, his mistresses’ quarters, and then finally I reached the place I came to see. Pablo Naruda’s study.

It wasn’t very large. In fact, it seemed quite small given Naruda’s notoriety and fame. There were wooden bookshelves lining the back wall, a desk, reading chairs, and lots of artifacts that reminded me of Native American relics. Maybe they were? If I’d had more time I probably could’ve listened to find out. His desk was clean with nothing more than a few pieces of paper, his glasses and a pen. It was also tiny, not much bigger than the desk I used at home. The room was brightly lit with tons of windows. I wanted really badly to sit down in one of the chairs and imagine being him; to look out over his garden and think about the words that would flow together into poetry.

For a writer, the 8-hour layover in Santiago was enlightening. I walked in the shoes of one of my own characters and sat in the house of one of the greatest writers in history. AND I did it all with time to spare, so after going back through security, I took a seat at the bar, ordered a Pisco Sour and toasted myself for a layover well spent.

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WIR — DAVID SEDARIS

Brilliant! Funny! All the Praises belong to David Sedaris.

Brilliant! Funny! All the Praises belong to David Sedaris.

What I’m Reading: “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” by David Sedaris.

This man needs no introduction obviously, so why it took me so long to find his work is beyond me. Given to me by my friend Gina, as a must read book, I picked it up and instantly fell in love.

Because Sedaris writes short stories, there is no commitment! Yet, here’s the thing: I always wanted to come back for more. I’d read a story, laugh out loud, finish it and then want more. His books are to readers what cigarettes are to smokers, which is ironic because he spends about forty pages talking the pains of kicking his smoking habit.

The way he tells stories is unlike anything I’ve ever read. They’re personal, feel candid, and are always really funny. There is so much to admire in his work, but the thing I really walked away with was that it was him. Every facet and nuance of the book was Sedaris himself and whether the way he writes is really the way the thinks, doesn’t matter because either way he makes for a very compelling character.

As a writer one of the things I noticed was that he often times starts his stories by just diving in. His prose isn’t flowery or overly complicated, he sticks to the story and stays focused. He doesn’t spend four paragraphs talking about what Paris looks like or what Japan looks like. It’s all folded into the story itself. If I know what the trains in Tokyo are squeaky clean, it’s because he’s telling me a story about a woman taking her sons shoes off, and laying down a cloth before he’s allowed to stand on the seat and look out the window.

Admittedly, I’m quite jealous of his life. To quit smoking he spent $20,000 on a 3 month trip to Japan. He’s lived in multiple countries and has been all around the world giving talks. Just thinking about his lifestyle makes my mouth salivate. And yet, I get the feeling from his writing that he’d be just as happy writing without the money. So I guess herein lies the lesson.

Pay attention to the world around you because it’s full of fruitful ideas and images that will be useful when writing your novel whether it be fiction or non-fiction. Do things, take classes, stay active as a member of society even if it gives you anxiety, because those experiences are what make up a lot of the humor in Sedaris’ work. “It’s funny because it’s true,” as my friend Mikey would always say.

I’ve never heard Sedaris speak, yet somehow there are vocal intonations in the way he writes and now I know what it means to find your voice as an author. It doesn’t mean you have to fill the book with large vocabulary, or make every sentence move to the beat of a tune, it means being authentic as a writer and of course staying in character as you immerse yourself into the people you create within your stories.

 

Why I’m Publishing with IngramSpark

Paper quality–Look at the difference in ink quality between the two.

 

When I started thinking about writing this article I googled CreateSpace vs. IngramSpark and found an awesome blog post about the pros and cons of each. So rather than duplicate what’s already been done (and done well), I thought I’d explain why I chose to go with IngramSpark over CreateSpace.

My number one concern with the book was quality. Since I’m publishing my first book, this might seem like an unnecessarily thing to be overly concerned with. But I am. I spent the last 3 years of my life working and reworking this novel and I want it presented in the best possible way. So I started at the top. I e-mailed 20 of the top book printing houses and asked for samples (some of which I had to pay for). Then, I looked at pricing. Almost immediately, 5 of my top choices went away. I love my book, but $45/each is crazy talk.

So I found myself looking at CreateSpace and IngramSpark as the two top choices. Here’s why:

1. Print on Demand just makes sense.

2. I wanted to sell paperbacks for no more than $8.99

3. I needed a platform that easily connected to Amazon and simultaneously allowed me to sell to bookstores.

4. Worldwide distribution.

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For me personally, I feel like the createspace book looks more like a manual.

CreateSpace is an offshoot of Amazon so it makes a lot of sense to go with them. They are likely streamlined and I’m sure the process has less roadbumps. BUT when I received my sample copies, the decision was an easy one. IngramSpark, had a better matte finish bookcover, the binding was nicer, and the paper was leaps and bounds ahead of the stuff Createspace uses. A quick comparison of the paper quality of any book published with any of the top five publishing houses, makes CreateSpace’s book look like a cheap manual you’d pay $1.99 for. For me, quality matters more than the profit–if no other reason, than I want to feel proud of the product I’m selling/giving to reviewers. I also didn’t spend years, perfecting the art of crafting beautiful sentences so then release my work on a crappy platform. That being said, if my goal was to publishing a lot and very quickly, CreateSpace would definitely be the way to go, because it’ll generate revenue more quickly.

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The ultimate goal is to have your book match up with the high quality books sold in bookstores. Which one looks better to you?

Now, for the ebook part.

For the e-book, I’m releasing it on the Kindle directly through Amazon. There are 2 reasons for this.

1. The % of profit you make back is greater if you do Kindle Direct.

2. You can chose/change your set prices.

3. There are really great promoting tools. Ex. Match your paperback and sell the ebook for $2.99 when purchased together.

Note: if you’re publishing your first book (as is the case with me) doing the 90-day KDP Select program is maybe not the best idea. Jane Friedman, wrote a great article on the pros and cons of KDP Select here.

Looking over all of the different options for self-publishing is overwhelming so I hope that this article helps shed some light on the benefits of publishing with IngramSpark. Of course, this is my first book so it’s all just one large experiment for me too! If you’ve had a different experience or have an opinion of better services I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

101 Queries and a Marketing Plan

Getting a book published is 50% writing and 50% self-promotion.

Getting a book published is 50% writing and 50% self-promotion.

When I hit a 101 sent queries I stopped. The past two months have been an emotional roller coaster with high highs, low lows, and whole a lot of talking myself off a ledge. Over the course of weeks, a request of the full comes in, followed by a rejection, and the e-mails tag-team each other like this for a while. Talk about never letting a celebration last too long. To my surprise, I’m told this is a great ratio. So taking some advice from a writer friend of mine, Gina, I celebrate the small victories. At the very least it’s an interesting concept. I reward myself with a delicious iced coffee with coffee cubes, that’s right, coffee cubes–brilliant.

The high lasts about 15 minutes, before a new reality sets in: none of it matters if at the end of the day I still don’t have an agent.

I stare hard at my 101st query letter and the fifth page of my Google search for upmarket women’s fiction agents, and decide I need something else to focus on. If an agent is a no-go, what’s the game plan? Another way of phrasing this is: If an agent is a no-go, how do I keep from spiraling into a comatose state of complete and utter depression? But that’s obviously overly dramatic. Right? Right.

Positive thoughts, I tell myself, as I research marketing strategies and discover a ton of useful and helpful information from the Canada Business Network of Info Entrepreneurs.

For starters, I learn that I need to “know my audience.” Who am I targeting? That seems easy enough: Women. I write women’s fiction so I’m looking for women readers. More specifically I’m looking for readers interested in “upmarket women’s fiction,” which is fiction that straddles the line between commercial and literary.

The next part is harder. How do I get my book in front of them? I do a Google search for book publicists and, instead of finding an actual publicist, I find an article about how I could be my own publicist–even better. This is great because banks don’t give out loans for marketing unpublished books (at least I don’t think they do), so the more work I can do on my own the better chance my book is going to have of surviving in a clearly saturated market.

Kelly Ferguson wrote a great article titled, “Being My Own Book Publicist,” which I think every emerging writer should read. There is a ton of helpful information like: what to do before the book release, using your friends, brainstorming your market, and social networking. Note: this was her particular story and though I can’t say this with any kind of authority, I am certain that every book has it’s own journey therefore this article is a not complete guide by any means.

After I read a ton of exhausting articles about the million and one things I need to do, my brain goes into shock and I stare blankly at a Wega coffee machine at Romancing the Bean for 10 minutes. I let my mind wander into the world of being a barista. Ahh…coffee, how I do love thee. Writing is a pain the in the ass, maybe I’d be happier making coffee. Gourmet, whole earth, fair trade, organic delicious coffee. I think I’m on to something here. A cute little Cafe Jamie apron, biscotti’s, tea cakes…

“Get to work Hoang!!” my alarm shouts. Yes, I set random alarms throughout the day to remind myself not to procrastinate. And back into the world of publishing I go.

To keep things from getting overwhelming I pick the five things I think need to happen now:

1. My book needs a website. I buy the domain: Blue Sun, Yellow sky. The creation of the website will have to happen later.

2. Research — Start researching book clubs, Goodreads groups, book reviewers, and blogs with an audience fit for my novel.

3. Social Media — Prep blog posts, make use of Twitter, consider an author FB page, etc.

4. Layout a Marketing Plan–It isn’t enough to just research great marketing tactics. I need to put an actionable plan in place with a yearlong calendar of goals and ideas.

5. Query and forget — This is still a vital component to the publishing process. I’ve only been querying for two months, there are many more agents out there and I shouldn’t give up prematurely.

And, now that I have a plan, I need to quit procrastinating by writing this blog entry.

Signing out! *she salutes*

I wrote a book. Now what?

Found this while searching the internet for "Book Manuscript" images and couldn't help imagining my own words immortalized in a museum this way.

Unfortunately, this is not my book. It’s Charlotte Bronte’s unpublished manuscript which sold at auction recently for £690,850!

Three years ago when I left for Houston on an epic journey to become a “real writer” I never imagined that I’d actually become one. At the very least, I feel like one. I spent the first three months pumping out the “shitty first draft” and another two years and nine months turning that sucker into a real book. So now, here I am with a finished novel at 80,000 words and no idea what do with it.

There are a million articles online that advocate for self-publishing. Classes are taught on how to do it, self-published millionaire authors write about it, and everyone, it seems, has an opinion about it. Publishers hate and indie authors love it, but here’s the kicker: It’s all still very new.

Yes– I would love to jump on the Kindle bandwagon and make upwards of a million dollars as a self-published author, but what does this mean for the industry itself? Is it really better? I’m not sure.

Publishers on the other hand, want us to believe that the Kindle is the devil. That Amazon is driving the prices of books down and that the monopoly they have on the market isn’t good for anyone.

The data and statistics are sketchy at best so what’s a new author supposed to do? Research.

Just as every book has it’s own journey into creation, so too, does it have it’s own journey into publication, so this blog is by no means the right way to do anything. It’s simply how I’m going about it. (Check back in a few years to see if it worked)

So, first up…Querying.

Trust me when I say I would have loved to skip this part. Writing the Query Letter and Synopsis were torturous. If things were still handwritten I’d be sitting in a room waist deep in crumpled up papers. Lucky for me, they all just went into an electronic trash bin on my Mac computer’s desktop. Alas, I did it because I felt like not doing it would have been like trying to cut corners. These are the references I used as guidelines:

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-10-dos-and-donts-of-writing-a-query-letter

How to Format an Email Query for Literary Agents

Then after spending a month writing and rewriting my query letter, with numerous comments and critiques from other writers, I started to make my list. Using a simple Excel spreadsheet I created my list which looked like this [All of this info can be found using a simple Google search, so do your research!]:

BSYS Query List

BSYS Query List

Once I had my list, I began e-mailing five to seven agents a day. When I received a rejection I marked it and so on and so forth. Because most agents ask to be notified if you have been picked up by an agent, this is a good way to keep track of who you solicited.

Then…I wait. Ten minutes, nothing. Eleven minutes, a light tapping of my impatient foot begins. Twelve minutes, I realize I need to leave my house before I self-destruct.

Next day: My first rejection. To be honest it wasn’t all that bad. It’s a bit like friendly hazing before they let you join a sorority. Everyone has to suffer through it. The way I see it, the more rejections I collect, the closer I get to finding an agent. So tomorrow I’ll research five more and repeat until successful.

Rise to the Top, then Humble Yourself

Mutual Respect

Mutual Respect

Situated on a street notorious for prostitution, crime, and drugs, is my parents’ small motel. The area is known to many as the “meth capital of the world”. Cops hardly want to enter. And most of society is simply glad it’s contained to six square miles. As you can imagine, working in an area like this has many challenges beginning with security and ending with a hardened outer appearance. To look weak in the neighborhood is to invite trouble.

When my parents first took over the business 10 years ago, I thought they were crazy. Running a motel was a 24-hour job and it was a notoriously rough neighborhood, but they were entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity and wanted to capitalize on it. I think my dad also saw it as a challenge, which he’ll deny enjoying but deep down he knows he likes.

The first two years were spent fixing it up. Everything from the asphalt to the roof needed mending and my parents set to work right away. They hired day laborers but also worked alongside them doing much of the heavy lifting. The third and fourth years were clean up. I remember coming home from college one summer and sitting outside with my parents as a cop rolled through on his regular patrol. He stopped to say hi to my parents and then turned to my older sister and me and said, “You should be really proud of your parents. Two years ago, we would not have driven through here.”

His words were anything but soothing. If even the cops are weary of entering what does that say about the neighborhood?

By year eight, my parents had settled in. They have learned to sleep with one eye open, neighborhood faces had become familiar, and when ABC News aired a live broadcast of a prostitution raid in 2012, our motel was one of the few left unscathed. How then, I wondered, did they do it?

If you ask them they will tell you it is luck. But I would say it is because of a mutual respect. When I work there on occasional weekends and during the summers, I notice my normal, friendly personality shift rather quickly into a hardened, unsympathetic business demeanor. Nine out of ten people who walk in the door have a sob story and maybe one of the nine isn’t lying about their situation. I can’t tell the difference so I treat everyone the same across the board. My parents, though, they still try to give everyone a chance and they feel guilty when they misjudge.

Every year, during the holidays, my parents set up benches in the parking lot and they cook a full meal with all the fixings for anyone in the neighborhood who’s hungry. To be completely honest, I thought this was a tactic to build goodwill among people who could easily wreak havoc on a motel LA-riot-style. But that wasn’t it at all. They are hyper aware of the fact that their income comes from the so-called “undesirable” residents of the area. “We can never think that we are better than them,” my dad says.

My dad’s English isn’t that great, but I believe what he means is: work hard, build something, and humble yourself as it grows, because you are only as important as those that you profit off of. I can only imagine how much better we would function as a society if our relationships with those above or below us on the social spectrum were founded on the grounds of mutual respect.

Playing Like Picasso

One of Picasso's first cubist Paintings - Les Demoiselles

One of Picasso’s first cubist Paintings – Les Demoiselles

Guest post by: Ryan Andrew

For the longest time, I used to startle awake in the middle of the night. I’d look around and not know where I was… I wouldn’t recognize the shapes of my apartment walls or furniture in the dark, and it would take me a moment to get my bearings. As I’d lay there looking up at the ceiling, suddenly my problems would flood around me like my bed had been floating in the ocean and was just now submerging and dipping under the surface. Things always seemed worse at night: if I was having problems at work, financially, or with a relationship, it was always magnified ten times at these late hours. 

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was In the Night Kitchen. If I remember correctly, it was about a boy who floats out of his bed in the middle of the night, drifts out the window, and high over the city. He eventually drifts into a bakery and falls into a womb-like vat of dough, somehow losing all of his clothes in the process. I’m not sure why it suddenly popped into my mind while lying there in the dark at the age of 32, but I found myself thinking about it.

I imagined myself floating out the window and rising up, high over the city. The streets would be empty around my building, and as I climbed higher and higher, the street lamps would turn into a grid of pinpoints. The moon was full, and its blue light illuminated much of the city, but beyond that… darkness. I could see east and north from Los Angeles, and it was nothing but desert, empty, barren and dark.

This was the best my imagination could muster? This was me “playing” as an adult? When I was a child, I loved the idea of floating around like the boy in In the Night Kitchen, drifting into a bakery, meeting three jovial bakers… It seemed like an adventure. Now I shot up into the sky like a rocket, looked out over hundreds of miles… and saw nothing.

Picasso was quoted as saying that he spent the better part of his career learning to paint like a child again. I have spent the better part of my life learning how to play again. Society subtly removes play from our lives in incremental stages: we have recess up to a certain point (usually middle school), and then we just sit around during lunch and talk. Many of us play sports, usually through high school or college, and then once we get jobs and life gets in the way, we’re relegated to sitting on couches or in bars and watching others play sports on TV. We are shadows of our former selves.

Last summer, I took a business trip to Indianapolis for the premiere of a film I had edited. My boss, the director, invited me over for a yearly basketball game he played with his friends. It was the beginning of July– about as hot as it gets– and about 30 seconds into the game I felt like I was going to pass out. I was so winded and dehydrated, and I could see fingers of electricity crawling in at the corners of my eyes with the impending threat that I was going to black out. I was thankful when my turn was up, and I collapsed in the chair on the sidelines, soaked in sweat. My boss turned to me and said, “You know what’s funny? Every time you go up for a layup, you’re grinning ear to ear.” I doubted the validity of that statement… I was so exhausted, I felt like I could possibly have been smiling… But then I realized what it was: it was a fossilized remnant of my childhood, like a mosquito caught in an amber rock or a giant ribcage bone from a wooly mammoth. But it wasn’t some prehistoric creature– it was my ability to get lost in the moment, to have fun, and play.

In a flash, it was gone. The weekend passed by in the blink of an eye, faster than you can snap your fingers (those summer weekends always do)… and I’m back in Los Angeles. I’m jerked awake in the middle of the night again, and it takes me a moment, but I catch my breath and remember where I am. It’s cold outside– early fall– and I can feel the chilly air drifting in through the open window.

I lie back in bed and stare back up at the ceiling. I reminisce about that summer and I am touched by a moment of sadness. Life is passing by too damn fast. I used to have entire summers full of those moments, but they are now few and far between.

But then, something gently grabs ahold of me. I feel my self lift out of bed, but instead of flying out the window and high up into the sky where I see nothing but desert and darkness, I drift over to my computer. I take off all my clothes until I am completely naked, just like the character of In the Night Kitchen. Instead of falling into a vat of dough, I open a blank document and fall into my imagination. I let go.

I have never written a blog entry just for the sake of writing it. The words aren’t premeditated, there is no outline, and I have no idea what it’s for, or why I’m doing it, but I do it. Because it’s fun.

That’s how I played tonight.

Giving Characters Freedom To Be Wrong

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Aubrey Johnson, the protagonist in my manuscript Blue Sun, Yellow Sky, is a painter who discovers that in six to eight weeks she’ll be completely blind. I myself couldn’t paint a flower to save my life, but I was fascinated with the idea of someone in her late twenties losing the identity she spent her life cultivating. Ideas are fickle that way; sometimes they emerge but require a great deal of research.

To get into the mind of a painter, I spent a lot of time in art galleries and museums. Not being a painter myself, I had to read a lot about painting technique, color mixing, shadow and light composition and historical context. But I also needed my character to be relatable and feel real, so she couldn’t just spit facts out here and there about art. She needed to have a unique perspective.

As the writer, I needed to readers to first believe that she was a painter and then accept the quirky facets I attached to her personality. I was very self-conscious that readers wouldn’t connect with my character or think of her as a real painter if I didn’t adhere to certain artistic standards. So, at first, I pulled facts and ideas from books I read about certain art pieces and I tossed the phrases into her vernacular every chance I could. But when she started to feel like an art history major I knew something had to change.

In my research, I came across a TED talk by Tracy Chevalier about finding the story inside the painting. At the beginning of her talk, she boldly admits that when she walks into an art gallery or museum, many of the paintings simply do not strike a chord with her. This might be pretty universal but not many people talk about it, and that kind of raw honestly about art’s subjectivity was what released me from the chains of “authenticity” and moved me towards creating a unique character with a distinct voice. Characters, like people, are most interesting when they’re flawed, so unbinding her from the idea she had to know everything about every painter and style of painting was freeing.

Unless I’m writing a historical piece my character can be whoever she wants to be. Restricting her tastes to what is commonly considered to be the highbrow tastes of artists limits my ability to create my own character. By allowing Aubrey to sometimes like things that might be considered lowbrow among art enthusiasts, I avoided the pitfall of creating a clichéd character. After all, who wants to read about a character that never surprises them?

I’m not saying not to do the research. Without a basic understanding of the medium it is impossible to build on or strip away an identity. What I’m suggesting is do the research and then give your characters the freedom to choose whether or not they accept or reject those ideas. Then watch as your characters’ personalities open up and they start to come alive.

 

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