Saturday, 19 May 2018

Setting your hero up

When you plan on writing a story, you need to give your hero a background. Where do they live? How do they get by? What kind of work do they do? Do not underestimate the importance of their financial or social setup, because it can and will have an influence on the story at some point.

If you look at comics and pulp stories, where serialized heroes are fighting crime, you will find an abundance of main characters with what they call ‘independent wealth.’ Tony Quinn and Jim Anthony from my own past reviews, Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne, and many others. Secret Agent X has twelve rich men backing him up and making sure he’s never short on funds for his war against crime. Brother Bones from my latest review is an odd one out, but only because he’s a zombie and has no need for creature comforts. He merely waits until he’s needed again.
So why are all the others wealthy or even outright rich? Because they need to be. For their stories, they need to be able to disappear or travel at the drop of a hat, something a person with a nine-to-five job can’t do. Clark Kent can only hold a steady job, because he’s a reporter - one of the few jobs were he can disappear with the excuse of following a story. If he were an accountant, he couldn’t be the Man of Steel at the same time.
In addition, many vigilantes work during the night, whereas most jobs are done during the day. That means a person doing a regular job and being a vigilante wouldn’t have time to sleep. Sleep is, however, necessary for human beings (zombies not included).
And even Brother Bones would have a problem, if his driver and sidekick Bobby Crandall didn’t work night-shift as a Blackjack dealer at the Gray Owl Casino. He might not need to sleep and rest, but his human helper does. Luckily, Bobby sleeps during the day, because he works at night - which is when most of the criminals Bones hunts down are active, too.
A few crime hunters, like Dan Fowler or the Germans Jerry Cotton and Larry Brent, do their work full-time. They are employed for it, so they get paid regularly. And, of course, they can travel whenever and wherever they need to.

This is something which will and should play into your story at some point, if you choose to write something in that direction.
If your character has to juggle their night-time hunting with a day-time job, there will be ramifications eventually. Falling asleep during work, for instance, which leads to trouble with the boss or even getting fired. Being that fraction of a second too slow to catch a criminal or avoid a bullet during the hunt, which leads to injuries or unwanted deaths.
On the other hand, someone with independent wealth also has problems to work out. Like having a certain standing in society. Bruce Wayne has to keep up the impression of being a playboy. Tony Quinn, working as a lawyer despite his wealth, needs to pretend he’s blind in public. Secret Agent X has far too many different identities to juggle.
Jane from my own Knight Agency series was set up in high society as the daughter of a rich man, because both her specialities, assassination and breaking and entering, may demand quick disappearances from her. She grew into her position more firmly that expected and has really become a member of high society through her friends and acquaintances.

When you set up your hero, think about how their position in society, their work, their family, or other parts of their background might hinder or help them on their adventure. A lady from high society in a Regency or Victorian period piece can’t act the same way a gentleman may. A man with a lot of family can always be threatened indirectly through them. Someone struggling to get by will be challenged by suddenly needing additional money or having to cut back on work for personal reasons. On the other hand, a well-connected socialite has all information about high society at her fingertips, because of her many acquaintances.
That’s usually not the main plot of your story, of course, but it can create a bit of additional friction. A little additional problem to spice things up. And if it is the main plot point of your story, then all the better: make sure the main character’s background and their ambition or current situation are as much at odds as they can be.

On the other hand, if you’re writing a series, you need to keep notes on the complete background of your main characters. You need to know who their friends and enemies are, whom they have dealt with in the past, where they live, how they live. You need to keep in mind when their background clashed with the story in the past. Did something change because of a past story? Did they make or lose friends? Did their wealth change one way or other? I admit I had to list who calls Jane what (Jane, Miss Browne, Agent Browne), so I got that straight as the series advanced.

Setting up your characters, especially the lead of your story, is very important. Some things might be obvious to you, because they’re part of the plot from the beginning, but others will become interesting or important over time. The sooner you are aware of who your character is and where they come from, the better for the story, because you can tailor it to fit with your lead much better that way. If you can create additional conflict through your character’s background, it’s all the better.

Sometimes, you might think you know the background, but during the writing process, it turns out you actually don’t. The background you’ve picked doesn’t fit at all with the story and always clashes with it in a bad way. The sooner you realize it when that happens, the better. Try to figure out what is easier to change: the background or the part of the story which clashes with it. If you’re writing a series, of course, you have to make changes in the story, because you’ve already introduced the background. But the better you know your character, the less likely it is for such problems to happen.

Setting your hero up is an important part of your writing process and you should not do it too lightly. Yet, if in doubt, go with your gut instinct, because it will help you create a character you can rely on and understand blindly. Try to use the background to make things more interesting, but don’t try to force that too much.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

New Desk Who This?

While moving to a new flat, I also decided to finally exchange my old and far too small computer desk for a new one - a real desk, if one with a computer function. I’ve been annoyed about how small my own desk was for a long time, because I spend most of my day at it - writing, editing, surfing the net. Yet, I had a rather small affair which was crowded with my screen and my printer. I hardly had space to put something else down, was always at risk of spilling my glass of water … in short: it was way past time to exchange it for something a little more professional. The move was a good reason to finally do so, especially as my new flat is a bit bigger and I do have more space for a desk now.

My move isn’t completely over as I write this - but hopefully will be by the time this is published. Currently, I don’t even have internet, because my landline/internet connection won’t be up until about a week after the actual move. After the move, I will have to concentrate on editing first and foremost - the first John Stanton collection is supposed to be out at the end of May (I’m writing this on the 28th of April).

This month was anything but easy - my mother died, I had to quickly arrange this move, so my father can take over my old flat soon (the one I moved into is in the same house, but two floors up, and I want my dad to have his space on the ground floor, since he’s not getting any younger). I didn’t write much more than a few blog posts - this one included. But things will surely get better, once I’ve really moved in and my dad has as well.

The desk is only part of what is new, though. Of course, being two more floors up now, I have a different view than before. I have some more space, since the new flat is a little bigger than the old one was. And while I was preparing to move, I have thrown away a lot of my old stuff. I lived in my old flat for fourteen years, a lot of stuff accumulated over time. And I became very comfortable in it, too. Just as I became comfortable in my own life after moving out of home. A life which is changing now. But change is good. Perhaps, I had become too comfortable.

I’ve not been writing much in March, either, before all of this started. I think I was starting to feel caught in my project, in the series I’ve started already. I think I needed a new view. In May, I’ll be editing, apart from the ramifications of the move and the possible things happening downstairs before my dad can move in. It’s also a month for me to regroup. I usually want to write something after I’ve spent a month editing, because editing is what I have to do, not what I enjoy about writing. It’s part of the process, but every job has parts which you don’t like. With me and writing, it’s editing, proofreading, the whole shebang about turning the first draft, which I find fun to write, into something you can have other people look at.
In that aspect, editing has a lot in common with moving, as I’ve realized this month. It’s hard work, it’s no fun, but the end result is worth it. I’m not quite at the end of my move, but my new flat already feels like home. Most of the chaos has been curbed. Even if I’m without a couch for the next couple of weeks, because my old one didn’t make the move (it simply wasn’t in any shape for a couch any longer - 14 year on a cheap design will do that), I’m getting comfortable again. I can move through my bedroom without light already after two nights (even though I’m now under the roof with slanted walls). My muscle memory of this place is building (I’m not as good with it as Jane is, but I’m not a highly trained agent or criminal, after all). Moving is all about getting comfortable in your new place. Editing is all about turning the first draft into what you envisioned your story to be. Both is not easy, both is no fun, but in the end, you’ll have something you enjoy and, hopefully, others will enjoy as well.

The new desk is a symbol of the move for me, to get back to that topic. It was the first piece of furniture up here, because it came two days before moving day, while nothing except for a few boxes was already up here. It was also the second piece of furniture I chose without my mother (the first was the couch - my dad and I fell in love with the same one, so we’re getting two of them, one for each flat). I looked at it and I knew this was what I needed and wanted - it has space for my big desktop computer, it has space for my monitor, keyboard, mouse, and printer, but it still leaves me with enough space for a notepad, a reference book, my water glass, a few sweets (I’m reading out loud during editing, so during those months, I need a lot of peppermint candy), my kindle, and other things I might need (like DVDs at the moment, while I have no internet to stream my TV stations).
The desk also was the first thing I made myself at home at after the move, taking care of the computer, linking everything and getting everything to work. I’m feeling fine at it. I can cook now, my fridge was delivered today. I can sleep well in my new bed, I can sit at my table which looks much more inviting under one of the slanted windows in my big living room/study/dining room, I can shower again on Monday, after the repairs in my bathroom have been finished (but I can clean myself up old-school, so that works).

I also found something old, however. The first fountain pen I ever wrote stories with, before I started doing them on the computer, before I started writing ‘for real.’ A present from my dad, a very old one, but high quality. I got it while I still was in school, well over twenty years ago. I forgot about it when I moved into my flat fourteen years ago. I found it today, I filled it with ink, and it worked as if no time had passed. So now it replaces my disposable pens for my bullet journal. Not everything is wrong or should be thrown away, because it is old. The real art, I guess, is fusing the old with the new.

I have a new desk, a new flat, but an old fountain pen. My life is changing, but a lot of things will stay the same. Sometimes, though, new perspectives help with finding new ideas for writing.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Signature Description

I’ve been thinking about signature descriptions a bit lately, so here are my thoughts on them. The first time I thought about them was when I watched this video about how Rowling wrote Harry Potter as a series of mysteries. The important part for signature descriptions starts around the 5:20 timestamp. Then, when I wrote my Brother Bones review, I put down Bones’ signature description (slouch hat, black coat, white skull mask), which is widely used in the stories to announce his arrival (since things are rarely described from his point of view).

Signature descriptions, be they looks, tools, specific expressions, or other things about a character, can be very useful in writing, because they make the character easily recognizable. While that might be of little importance if you only write one story about a character, it’s very useful in a series, because the audience grows used to the descriptions and can thus unconsciously recognize important characters (not just the main lead, but also recurring characters) merely by their description.
If you check the video above, you’ll find a short quiz where three short descriptions of side characters where put down for you to guess them - I got two of them right and would have made the third with, perhaps, two more seconds of thinking before the solutions were shown. None of the descriptions, of course, includes a name. They’re not even including the gender. But since Rowling keeps descriptions of her characters to a few easily memorable things, you still automatically recognize them.

Physical traits and looks are part of the characters you write. And you need to put them down somewhere, so the readers have an idea about who those characters are. When I started to write the Knight Agency series, I pretty early on figured out the clothing preferences and overall looks for Jane and Steven.
Jane is slightly below average height, has an athletic build, pale-blond hair in a pixie cut, and vividly blue eyes. The short hair is due to her taste as well as a security measure - long hair is easier to grab in a fight and being pulled around by your hair really, really hurts. The athletic build is due to her keeping in shape for her job as an agent. The other things, hair and eye colour and height, are genetic.
Steven is tall and has a strong frame, his hair colour is mostly unknown, because he shaves his head daily (but Secret Keeper has a scene suggesting it’s dark brown or black), and his eyes are dark. Despite his age (he’s 68), Steven still keeps in shape and is dangerous to cross. The shaved head isn’t only a logical next step from Jane’s short hair (a woman usually won’t get away with a shaved head, though), but also a way to disguise his age, because it won’t show his hair turning grey (or falling out completely). Again, height, eye colour, and hair colour are genetic.
The clothing preferences actually developed quickly, too. Jane likes relaxed clothing she can easily move in, so I gave her a signature outfit of sneakers, hoodie, and cargo pants - easy to move it, a lot of pockets to put stuff in, easy to hide in a crowd with. Steven, on the other hand, always wears a suit - usually a three-piece suit and always a bespoke one from Bradshaw and Son (they are introduced in Key Pieces). He can wear his surroundings like his skin, so he can blend in whenever he desires.
While their signature looks are very different, their characters are not. Jane and Steven are pretty alike in abilities and basic traits, which is why they make such a good team. I liked their juxtapose clothing preferences, too, because it is something they can banter about every now and then.
Signatures for Inez and Tom, the main characters of the Magpies series (first novel to be released later this year), are a little different. Inez’ signature so far is her rainbow-coloured hair, Tom’s is his stiff right knee. But signature descriptions can also evolve a little over time, as long as they are kept consistent.

Superheroes have a signature look, even if it changes now and then with changes in fashion or technology. They usually have signature colours (like Superman’s blue, red, and yellow), often signature symbols (like Batman’s bat symbol), and some also have signature tools or weapons (like Thor’s hammer). The colour scheme for the outfit often also comes back in the design of any accessories the hero uses. How strong the signature look is depends a lot on the hero as a such. The more ‘low-key’ the hero, the less obvious the look normally.
Beside visual signatures, there also are others. Audible signatures often are catchphrases (like Bart Simpson’s ‘eat my shorts’) or very specific ways of talking. Accents or dialects play in this direction, especially if they come with specific words or expression. The Death of the Discworld speaks like this, which makes him recognizable on page and translates well into an echo effect when sound really comes into play (in movies or audio books). A very unique voice can also serve as a signature, but is harder to present on page than in a medium with sound.
Another signature might be smell, but it’s not used as often, because smell isn’t as high on the list of described input as visual and audible clues. Yet, a specific perfume might play a role, especially in a mystery story, where it might betray the whereabouts of a character (in places with little air circulation, smells might linger for quite a while). If a viewpoint character is a werewolf or another being with a heightened sense of smell, smells will definitely play a larger role in the narrative and thus can become part of a signature description more easily.

Usually, signature descriptions are limited to the senses. Looks, sounds, and smells mostly, because tastes or tactile information are not something you work with in a regular scene. The viewpoint character needs to be very close to someone else to get a taste or a feel. In addition to specific looks, specific phrases or a very unique voice can serve as a signature. The same goes for a specific smell, since smell carries further than taste and can linger under the right circumstances.
For the signature description to be effective, it’s important to keep to the same or similar words for your description. Like this, the description is etched into the reader’s memory and at some point, they will automatically identify the character by the description. Try to keep it simple, too. Not too many words, not too many specifics. Just a few words which will be ingrained in the readers’ minds and allow them to identify the character later on.
You can, by the way, also use signature descriptions for places or objects, but that’s not done as often. Behaviour can also be a signature, but you should be more careful with that and not have your main character always biting their lip or scratching their head or giggling at the wrong time. That usually gets old rather quickly.

So, signature descriptions. A good way to keep the main cast of a story in the readers’ minds. Keep them simple, don’t overdo them, make them logical (in combination with a character’s character). Then they’re a great tool for every writer, but especially for someone who plans on a very long story or several with the same set of people.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Brother Bones Review

I’ve reviewed several Airship 27 series already (see here, here, and here). This time, though, the series is not one from the golden age of pulp, but a new one: “Brother Bones,” The Undead Avenger.

As the ‘undead’ part of the title suggests, Brother Bones is indeed a horror title, the main character being a zombie. It’s also a title mainly written by one author, Ron Frontier himself (he owns Airship 27). Merely the second book and only full novel, “Six Days of the Dragon,” was not written by him. The other three books are filled with his stories. Because of this, the stories show a progression of the main characters, which include, in addition to Brother Bones, formerly Tommy Bonello, about half a dozen other characters, from his at first unwilling helper Bobby Crandall over Bobby’s love interest Paula Wozcheski to Lieutenant Detective Dan Rains and reporter Sally Paige. On the other side of the law, there’s people like Harry Beest and Alexis Wyld, who turn up every now and then, as does the mad Doctor Bugosi, at least until his demise in the fourth book.

As a matter of fact, the reader spends little time in Brother Bones’ head. Bones is undead, has come back from the limbo between heaven and hell for a chance to clean his soul of the many, many sins he committed in life. When he’s not out dealing out revenge and justice for the innocent dead, he is sitting in a chair in a dark bedroom and simply waiting for the next assignment. The other characters of the stories are much more interesting, because they still do have a life. Yet, it is Brother Bones who brings them together and who often brings about the conclusion of the story.

The first story of the first book, “The Bone Brothers,” tells the origin story of the Undead Avenger. Once he was one half of the most deadly, ruthless, and brutal pair of killers in the employ of Topper Wyld, one of the two major crime bosses of the fictional northwest harbour city of Cape Noir. Jack and Tommy Bonello were twins, looking so much like each other that it took the tattoos on their right hands to know one from the other. They had no conscience and enjoyed wreaking havoc and ending lives. Until, one night, one of their victims thanked Tommy for her death. He couldn’t forget the girl’s voice, saw her in his dreams every night, almost went mad with it. He disappeared and joined a monastery. His calm second life lasted for a few months, until his brother found him and killed not only Tommy, but also the other monks, before setting the monastery on fire. Tommy found himself in a limbo between heaven and hell and stayed there for a while, until the girl turned up as his spiritual guide and gave him a choice: return to the world of the living to make up for his sins or go straight to hell. Tommy chose atonement and was sent back. He materialized as a ghost in a warehouse, where his brother had just burned the second big boss of the city alive, ended Jack’s life, and took over his dead body. He forced the second victim of the night, Blackjack Bobby Crandall, the recently deceased boss’ driver, into his service, and had him drive them to the burned-down monastery, where he found a face mask looking like a skull (made by one of the other monks before their deaths) and took it for his work.

Brother Bones’ signature look are his skull mask, which hides his decaying face, a wide-brimmed Fedora, a more and more tattered black coat, and two silver-plated .45 automatic pistols, which he dual-wields like no living being ever could. Bones knows no fear and feels no pain, which makes him a frightening foe to fight. He is almost indestructible and can return to his body even after another ‘death’ after twenty-four hours (as demonstrated in “The Synthetic Man”). Only magic can truly endanger him.
Yet, he doesn’t choose his targets himself, they are chosen for him by the powers that be. And while he’s not worried about killing more crooks, if they are between him and his target, he will not kill or endanger the innocent.

Paula Wozcheski, however, might be the character which changes most throughout the stories. In “The Scales of Terror,” she is introduced as the wife of a harbour worker who works in the same casino as Bobby and thinks her husband is cheating on her. She finds out it’s much worse and only comes out alive due to Brother Bones’ intervention. Afterwards, now widowed, she gets closer and closer to Bobby, until they become an on-off couple. Then, in “The Bruiser from Bavaria,” she is turned into a vampire, but Bones doesn’t go after her. He gives her one rule, though: not to kill the innocent, but still her hunger on the criminals of Cape Noir, which are plentiful. Paula adheres to that rule and, over time, takes on the identity of ‘Sister Blood,’ turning herself into the guardian of the women of Cape Noir and going for men who mistreat them (justifying her identity as Sister Blood with ‘you started that’ when Bones asks her about it). More than once, she fights by Bones’ side and, after initially trying to push him away, she stays in a relationship with Bobby, who doesn’t mind a vampire for a girlfriend (although, to be fair, he’s been sharing his flat with a zombie for about three years already).

The change which the characters show is a nice difference to Airship 27’s other publications which, due to their many authors, leave the characters more or less untouched by any events which unfold. Because there’s (almost) only one author writing the stories, Brother Bones and the others are allowed to grow.
Another nice touch are the female main characters of the story. Neither Sally, nor Paula, nor Alexis are likely to be easily threatened. Paula gets damselled twice: once in “The Scales of Terror” and once in “The Bruiser from Bavaria,” but comes out stronger after both encounters (a lot stronger after the second one, since she is turned into a vampire). Sally holds herself rather well, even in dangerous situations, and Alexis is no less cold-blooded or ruthless than her father, as she proves several times throughout the stories, too.

The stories themselves are what you might expect from a horror pulp about a zombie avenger. There’s the classic horror creatures such as werewolves (“Shield & Claw”), vampires (“The Bruiser from Bavaria”), zombies (“See Spot Kill”), Lovecraftian horrors (“The Scales of Terror”), man-made monsters (“The Synthetic Man” or “The Plastic Army”), human monsters (“The Butcher’s Festival”) and much more.

The only negative aspect of the stories is the editing, I’m afraid. I’ve not read the stories with my editor’s eye on, but easily spotted many errors which should have been found and corrected before the stories were released. While it’s easy enough to ignore them, because the stories are interesting to read and well-written on the whole, it’s something which a professional publishing house should have been able to catch. I do catch most errors, even while I’m just doing my own editing, yet if I could employ another editor for a second pair of eyes, I certainly would do so.

Editing notwithstanding, I can only recommend the series. The stories are well-written, the quality is good to excellent, the characters are engaging and allowed to grow, and the setting is one to quickly get comfortable in. A trip to Cape Noir can be a lot of fun, even with the black-clad avenger who calls himself “Brother Bones.”