Sunday, March 16, 2014

Three Things I Learned About Character Development from…Rocky?

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Winter 2014 will go down as the season that spawned such delightfully cheesy (or delightfully annoying, take your pick) names as #CHIBERIA and #POLARVORTEX, saw pickle juice used to melt ice and snow and potholes morphing into deadly chasms. 

For me, winter 2014 will mark the first time I watched all six “Rocky” movies end-to-end (living in a snow globe for days on end will do that.).

I have, of course, seen “Rocky” and “Rocky II.”  I’d seen bits and pieces of “Rocky III” and “Rocky IV” over the years, had no idea there even was a “Rocky V,” and figured “Rocky Balboa,” (the saga’s swan song) had to be the world’s worst punch line. 

Well, I stumbled into this marathon during a recent snowy weekend and was enthralled.  From the rousing poignancy of “Rocky,” (The 1976 Best Picture Oscar Winner, if you didn’t know) to the triumph of “Rocky II” (“Win!”), rolling through to “Rocky III’s” killer opening montage set to “Eye of the Tiger” (also worth the price of admission?  Rocky and former nemesis, Apollo Creed, frolicking in the Pacific in their 70’s porn star track shorts.  I mean, I just can’t with those two).  “Rocky IV” was just bigger, badder, more bombastic, more craptastic than any of them and such a time capsule of mid-80’s Cold War sentiment.  “Rocky V” has its moments (mostly low, but a few gems shine through).  Mostly you have to watch it to say you watched it, but don’t pay too much attention to it otherwise.  “Rocky Balboa” just ripped my heart out and was a much more fitting end to the storied and iconic saga.  

Obviously, there’s a lot Rocky can teach us about motivation, perseverance and believing in yourself.  However, as I watched the journey unfold, what really struck me was the great character development.  Sure, some of the characters are stock, especially the further away you get from the first film, but the Rocky franchise is a great case study for how to build interesting and believable characters that stay with you long after the final bell sounds.

So, here are three things I picked up about character development from watching the Rocky saga:

Expect the Unexpected – From Adrian (Talia Shire) wearing a watch on her sweater to Rocky keeping the combination to his locker inside his fedora for six years, there were a plethora of little moments throughout the saga that you don’t expect from the characters, which makes them all the more real and relatable.  Adrian’s brother, Paulie, (and Rocky’s best friend) the boorish drunk who works in a meat packing plant is revealed to be a painter in the last film.  Rocky wears glasses to write down his debt-collection assignments from his boss (the specs would reappear briefly in “Rocky V.”).  The possibilities for building real quirks into a character are infinite and frankly, fun to explore.
My Takeaway: Don’t go for the obvious personality traits.

Everybody Has a Voice – Rocky obviously has a very distinct way of speaking, from the malapropisms (“Are you closed to the general public or just everybody?”) to his fondness for “Yo,” and “You know.” However, everyone has their own unique voice, from his debt collector boss, Gazzo (“What, you think I don’t hear things?) to Mickey’s (Burgess Meredith) blunt growls and sensitive ramblings.  Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is obviously the most loquacious character (based on Muhammad Ali) and most of his dialogue alone is worth the price of admission (“Be a thinker, not a stinker” “Apollo Creed vs. the Italian Stallion. Sounds like a damn monster movie.”) Even Rocky’s son transitions from extremely proper diction and grammar (reflective of his privileged upbringing) to subtly incorporating more slang and “neighborhood” dialect after the family moves back to South Philly.
My Takeaway:  Don’t make everyone sound the same.

Everyone Has a Trajectory – The characters are constantly changing and growing, yet remain recognizable.  We first see Adrian as a painfully shy woman hiding behind bird cages and afraid of her own shadow, to standing up to her jackhole brother, donning chic ensembles and effusively declaring her love for Rocky in front of the whole world while remaining sweet and strong throughout.  Rocky’s rough exterior belies a heart of gold and despite all of his subsequent success, slight detour into hubris, eventual downfall and redemption, he’s still a good guy with the soul of a poet.  Even Rocky’s nemesis, Apollo, becomes a much more likeable character, while maintaining his ostentatious nature.

Even Paulie, who mostly remains an asshole, lets some sensitivity poke through on occasion. 
My Takeway: Never forget a character’s journey.

Of course, when I DO need a jolt of motivation, what could be better?:

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Getting to Know…Award-Winning Author Pamela Samuels Young

Like most (uh…all?) authors, I check out the “Also Boughts” for my books on Amazon, because of course, I’m curious to see what authors/books the folks who bought me are also reading. 

Pamela Samuels Young was one such author whose books/name kept cross-sectioning with mine, so I finally checked her out.  I was highly impressed with her platform and was further interested to learn she was a formerly traditionally published author who successfully started her own publishing company long before it was even a twinkle in many of our eyes.

Ms. Samuels Young graciously answered all of my nagging questions, and in the process of preparing this interview, I discovered her book, Anybody’s Daughter (which is on sale at Amazon for $.99 until March 7), was nominated for an NAACP Image Award alongside such heavy hitters as Terry McMillan and Walter Mosley.  Last month, she won the award and found herself standing on stage with one of her idols (see below to find out who).
Read on to learn about her publishing journey, her Do’s and Don’t’s for establishing a publishing company, that The Mo’Nique Show appearance and what’s next.  

1.You were originally traditionally published.  What was that experience like?
First, it was very exciting to get that first book deal!  I’d experienced lots of rejection from both agents and authors, but I kept the faith and kept writing and it paid off.  My first book deal was with BET Books, which was later purchased by Harlequin.  I was thrilled to have Glenda Howard edit my first novel, Every Reasonable Doubt, because she had a hand the careers of so many successful writers.
2.You established your publishing company, Goldman House, in the days before self-publishing became so mainstream via such outlets as Amazon, Smashwords, etc.  What were some of the challenges you faced in launching your company?
The biggest challenge was not really knowing what I was doing. I knew going in that I did not want to sign on with a vanity publishing company, which makes all of its money from the books it sells to authors by charging outrageous prices for both the books and their services. I found my own printer, interior designer and cover designer and packaged my own deal.  I was even lucky enough to get a distribution deal with the Independent Publishing Group, which got my books on store shelves. That was pretty exciting for an indie author.
3. Is it easier now or was it easier then?  Why or why not?
It’s much easier now. Amazon has changed the game, making it easy, fast and affordable for authors to publish their own work via Createspace (print books), Kindle (ebooks) and Audio Creation Exchange (audiobooks).  All my books are in all three formats. Once I complete a novel, I have it edited, then have it critiqued by several test readers. From there, it goes back for another rewrite and critiques from a few more test readers. Once I feel it’s ready to go, my interior designer will have a formatted book back to me in a week. A week later I have a book in my hand. Forty-eight hours later, the eBook is on sale. The longest process is for the audiobook, which is about two months, including the narrator’s time. With traditional publishing, that process can take a year to two years.

4. What do think you did “right?"
What I did right was doing my homework.  I spent hours in bookstores looking at books and studying their formatting.  What do today’s mystery covers look like?  How does the cover copy read?  What type of paper is the book printed on?  I read books on self-publishing.  What I didn’t want was a book that “looked” self-published.  That usually starts with the cover, which is a dead giveaway for an inferior product if it’s not done right.  I have an incredibly talented cover designer, Keith Saunders, of I really work hard to produce a professional product both inside and out. 

The fact that Anybody’s Daughter won the NAACP Image Award in the Outstanding Fiction category alongside four long-time, traditionally published authors validates all my efforts.
In my acceptance speech, I thanked my mother who taught me the power of prayer, my father who taught me that hard work pays off and Tyler Perry, a man I've never met.  Four years ago, I watched the Image Awards from my bedroom as he accepted the Chairman's Award.  In his acceptance speech, he said something that really resonated with me and flipped a switch in my brain. He said: "We don't have to wait for someone to greenlight our projects. We can create our own intersections." 

That was the moment when I stopped dreaming about a book deal and decided to take charge of my own writing career. And lo and behold, after creating my own intersection, I found myself standing on the same Image Award stage as Tyler Perry. Wow! God is good!

5. What experiences did you take from your traditional publishing days?  How have you applied them to what you’re doing now?
I enjoyed having an editor review my work and give me feedback that would make my books better.  I employed the same process in my indie career, hiring both a developmental editor and a copy editor to review my work. Their input is invaluable.

6. Were there any stigmas you had to overcome because you no longer had a traditional publisher behind you?
The only stigma was in my head.  I had to get over my desire to be with a traditional publisher.  Because of the availability of social media, most indies can now build their own audience, something that used to solely be within the publisher’s control.  I love the control I have over the career as well as my much larger royalty payments, which come every month, not two times a year.

7. For any authors considering establishing their own publishing companies, in your experience, what are some Dos and Don’ts to consider?
Don’t have a friend or family member design your cover. Get your cover professionally designed.  Same for editing.  I haven’t found a copy editor yet who catches all the errors.  You’ll have to have the book read multiple times by multiple people.  Finally, study your craft.  When I first started writing, I didn’t understand the importance of story structure.  It took completing one novel, putting it aside and writing another one before I really “got it.”

8. What are the advantages to an author forming their own publishing company? 
Total control over your writing career.  But that’s only a positive if you have the knowledge to professionally run a publishing company.  That takes a great deal of study and hard work. I also like that I get way more than eight percent of the income my books bring in.

9. Are there other authors on the Goldman House roster?  If so, how do you work with them?
No, right now I am the sole author. I plan to collaborate on some non-fiction books, but I don’t currently plan to publish other authors. No time!

10. Do you consider yourself to be an Indie author or a self-published author?  Why?
In my mind, both are the same. Indie author just sounds better. LOL!

11. Would you ever again consider a traditional publishing deal?
No, I love the control I have over my career. I’m finally at a point where the income allows me to write full-time.  I’ll be leaving my job as a lawyer in August 2014.

12. Who were/are some of the authors who influence your writing?
I'm a big fan of mysteries. I love the work of John Grisham, Walter Mosley and Tami Hoag.  But I would have to say that James Patterson has had the biggest effect on my writing style.  I love his fast-paced thrillers and the way he immediately pulls you into the story and hooks you at the end of each chapter, which compels you to keep reading. I admit that I intentionally tried to mimic his style of storytelling.  Readers have often compared my writing style to James Patterson's, which I consider a major compliment.

13. What is it about writing legal thrillers that excites you?
I guess the fact that I'm a lawyer drew me to the genre. I don't think the form differs much from any other type of mystery.  Frankly, I think legal thrillers are easier to write because it's not a stretch to create a lawyer who's a scoundrel.

14. You’ve had tremendous success with your books, which are perennial bestsellers in several Amazon categories.  What advice can you give other authors about building a brand and finding readers?
You have to think like a businessperson, not a writer.  My books are products. I have to be inventive and unrelenting about getting my product to readers.  I focus heavily on connecting with book clubs.  During one trip to the D.C. area, I met with three book clubs, made an appearance at a reception at a friend's home, and took part in a panel discussion at a bookstore, all on the same day. It was exhausting, but I reached a lot of people.

Book clubs are social networks and they are great sources for word-of-mouth buzz. If club members enjoyed reading one of my books, it's likely that they're going to mention it to their friends, family and co-workers.  I’ve connected with more than 200 book clubs via speakerphone, Skype and in person.

15. I have to ask.  How did the appearance on The Mo’Nique Show come about?
Via a book club member! One of the show’s producers was a member of a book club I attended in Atlanta.  I knew her prior to that, but I think the fact that I was coming to town and that she liked Buying Time, prompted her to invite me to be on the show. I’ve been invited to several major events through my book club connections.  They are my number one source of word-of-mouth buzz. (Click here to see the clip).
16. Anything else you would like to add?
In April 2014, I’ll be releasing my first non-fiction book, Kinky Coily: A Natural Hair Resource Guide. There’s been an explosion of interest in natural hair among African-American women.  After my own hair disaster, I decided to take charge of my hair care instead of relying solely on a hair stylist.  I was amazed at all the things I learned about my hair, primarily from YouTube bloggers who are half my age.  I wanted to share the knowledge I learned about natural hair care with other women and that’s exactly what Kinky Coily does.

I’m also working on another non-fiction book, Self-Publish the Right Way: Turning Your Passion into a Paycheck.  That’s scheduled for release in December 2014.
My next mystery is titled Married into Murder.  It’s the story of a young African-American woman whose marriage into an East Indian family results in tragedy.  Part sociological study, part courtroom drama, the novel examines the deep-seated cultural and racial prejudices that led to her murder. It goes on sale in June 2015.

Awesome.  Thank you much for your time and sharing your valuable insights!

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Tales from the Dark Side...of Love Giveaway - Winners!

February is over so let there be light (unless you live in the path of monster winter storms like I do, in which case, it might be a few more weeks before we see the sun).

Thanks to everyone who entered the contest and congratulations to the winners (see below)!  Hope you had fun on the dark side of love with us ;)

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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Tales from the Dark Side...of Love Giveaway

Thanks to everyone who entered the Tales from the Dark Side...of Love Giveaway!

Winners will be announced here on March 2, so stay tuned!