Thursday, February 3, 2011

T.K. Toppin Guest Blog

Quick intro, here. T.K. Toppin is one of our talented SF crew over at Champagne Books and she has a great futuristic yarn going where a young lady takes a bit of a nap over a few centuries. The Lancaster Rule is an awesome tale and the anchor for a series of novels. That is what she talks about here, the fine art of writing a story arc across a series of novels. I can relate to that!

Without further ado, I give you T.K


Serial Writing — my take on the topic

I’ve read many serial books, and you can’t help but see a trend. Sometimes, it can get a little repetitive, but that’s for the benefit of the reader who is reading out of sequence (the shame!) or the newly-introduced reader who hasn’t a clue what’s going on with the story so far. That is, if the story is a continuing saga into the lives of the main characters. So back-story is imperative. Of course, info-dumping is not so imperative. Honestly, I get sucked up into that all the time since I’m eager to get it over with. Scattering the back-story around throughout the book is a challenge in itself! As I complete the last in my series, I think I’ve finally gotten the hang of it. But boy, the temptation is great to just dump it all in one go.

My first journey into the world of serials began when I picked up the C.S. Lewis classic, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I was hooked. Of course, I read it out of sequence, since that is actually the second in the series. I scrabbled around until I finally found the obscure first book, The Magician’s Nephew. (If I’d waited a couple of decades, I could’ve saved myself a great deal of trouble and gotten the complete boxed set, like I do now and it sits proudly in my bookshelf).

After C.S. Lewis, I moved on to the Little House on The Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. After that, came the Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys, then later on, The Lord of The Rings, Dune, Harry Potter, Outlander, Artemis Fowl, Bartimeaus, Odd Thomas, even the J.D. Robb’s In Death series (which I still like to seek out and read every time Nora Roberts dishes out another).

When I began my own journey into the written world, I didn’t start out thinking I was going to write a series. I mean writing one book is overwhelming enough, but a set of them? Well, a trilogy, in fact, as it stops there. However, whilst writing, I realized that I had more to say, more adventures for my main characters to fall into. And it just wouldn’t work in just one book. But I also wanted to make sure that if a reader read the story out of sequence, they would get a relatively good feel for the characters and their surroundings — even if it ran the risk of getting the loyal reader bored. After all, sometimes we all need a little reminder about the little things. I also wanted each book to be a story within itself, but would also move smoothly onto the next story, as a sort of progression and development of the main characters. It can get tricky, and you find yourself using some of the same words to describe someone or thing that even you, the writer, starts to cringe. Trying to keep things fresh and new is a challenge.

Continuity is another factor to consider. I’ve kept notes with fictional dates, names, places, occurrences — even sub-characters children’s names and birth dates — just so I could maintain a certain level of accuracy and continuity to the story. After all, a devoted reader picks up on little discrepancies and remembers these tiny little details. I should know, I’ve done so myself and then formed a not-so-good opinion of the writer, thinking they were either forgetful, or just not that into the story to remember or even care. Having an eagle-eyed editor helps too and eliminates that “oops” situation.

Maybe it’s because I like to meet old friends each time I pick up a serial book and not have to worry about getting to know them from scratch. Because, you know, reading about their lives and adventures so many times, you can’t help but get to know them, and yes, even love them. The more you read about them, the more things you learn about them. That’s another trait you see in serials and one I hope I’ve managed to capture in mine. Developing a character, from perfection to flaws, is one thing you see a lot of, so you kind of know what to expect from the character. But you can also leave things hanging, keep the reader guessing. After all, you have other books in which to develop the character and story more. Like I said, it doesn’t have to be crammed into that one book. For me, I see serials as something were the reader and the characters involved grow and learn together.

In my first book, The Lancaster Rule, it was important for me to lay the groundwork down. I wanted to get the story of my main character’s past out, the relationship she had with the people around her, and how she developed and struggled to change towards the end of the story to discover who she really was. For the sequel, The Master Key, everything was in place, including the world I had built, but now it was the time to discover the main character in her new ‘matured’ state—flaws and everything. Like going out on the second date and you just happen to accidentally let a little wind slip out. The third book, The Eternal Knot, is a lot like the second and I hope I’ve captured characters that are more integrated in their personalities and relationships/interactions with each other.

So, that in a nutshell, is my brief take on serials. I could elaborate a lot more, give examples and get into detail about the nitty-gritties but that would take all day.

Thanks Kerry for allowing me to share some of my thoughts with you. And I’d like to say, your Dancer series…excellent. I’m hooked! Best part in Rogue Dancer (part 2 for those uninitiated) is:

“Sound like someone stepped on a field hen.”

Where T.K. Toppin can be found on the web:
Facebook: The Lancaster Rule / Written by T.K. Toppin
Twitter: TKToppin

Lights! Camera! Ipad?

You have to start somewhere, and with trailers it often means staring into the face of oblivion with little clue as to how to even get started. That was me. Why make a trailer? Well, after seeing how great the iPad was at displaying an author’s trailer, I decided that this was an excellent way to advertise my work while at conventions. So, the need was born. I had a fair experience with Photoshop, but that was about all the technical smarts I could bring to the project.

My first step was to familiarize myself with what makes a good trailer. With plenty of examples on You Tube, I found it relatively easy to break trailers down into a reasonable set of “rules”.

First rule – brevity. Few of my favorite trailers ran for much more than a minute. This makes sense. How long do you expect a person to look at your trailer, especially if they are on a convention floor? The trailers I preferred generally consisted of less than a dozen panels. Each panel, in turn, did not try and toss a lot of text on the screen. More important was that panels with a reasonable amount of text also provided the viewer with a reasonable amount of time to read them.

The second rule had to do with images. Go for the message, not necessarily the reality. Sure, you want to show your characters, but unless you plan on paying for an artist, you are stuck with what is out on the internet. No problem. The idea is to convey the idea, much like a book cover would. You don’t have to be accurate right down to the last detail.

So, I had my ground rules. From these basic tenants came other rules – mainly those concerned with copyright. As this would be a commercial venture, I was subject to copyright restrictions and could only use those images on the internet that were in the public domain or otherwise released by their authors. It was either that, or go to the expensive option of buying artwork. The latter choice was not within the range of my budget – which was essentially zero dollars and plenty of my own time.

So what images should I use? My next task was to sketch out a story board, even if only in my mind. I had to use scenes that were integral in selling the book – not necessarily telling the entire story. Essentially this would be the visual equivalent of a back cover blurb. I finally settled on a series of panels that would convey my hook, and began to search the internet for copyright-free images that could be coaxed via Photoshop into becoming what I was after.

Having targeted the iPad as my chosen media, I had to create Photoshop panels that were of a specific size – in this case 640x480. I wanted the video to fill the square screen, so all of my panels had to be of the same resolution. Coaxing images into my chosen format required some degree of transformation, but Photoshop and I were up to the task.

The next step was the most difficult – altering the images to show what I wanted portrayed. This meant cutting and snipping images together and using special effects when needed. Much of this work was beyond my limited knowledge, so I brought in a graphic artist who happened to be my son. In the online world of Second Life he is known as Andrek Lowell – creator of Bentham Forest and other widely popular environmental works. To say that he knows his way around Photoshop and other tools is an understatement. I watched, and most definitely learned a few things as he went to work on the more tricky aspects of bringing my alien world to life. I did not add text at this point as that task would be handled by the next phase of construction – making a video. As this was aimed for my iPad and was meant to be shown at a convention table, I opted out of any background music. Con goers were not going to be able to hear much of anything anyway.

I now had my panels, and it was time to sew them together. My austere budget demanded that I seek out free software, and Microsoft was there to help with Movie Maker. I approached this software with trepidation since I am not in the movie making business. Fortunately, the software proved to be very intuitive and friendly, allowing me to string out my panels and apply the text that would tell my story.

So, I had my trailer…on my desktop. In order to get it to the iPad, I had a real challenge ahead of me. The iPad does not have the ability to loop its videos – a tremendous oversight in my opinion. I hit forums and the iTunes store, and finally discovered a Japanese-made app called “Loop Video”. Purchasing the app was the easy part. The hard part was that it only accepted videos in two formats - MPEG-4 or H:264. The fun didn’t stop there. The file had to be of an exact size and frame speed. I went with MPEG-4 as my video was already set to generate the required 640x480 format required (lucky choice). Now I just had to convert the file from the Microsoft format (AVI) and get it to 30 frames per second in order for “LoopVideo” to digest it. Oh, and it had to be broadcast within a bandwidth of 2.5Mbps or less. Ack.

It was time to search for a video converter program – a free one that didn’t require me to become an overnight expert at video conversion. I settled on a product called “Clone2Go” – a hefty professional strength program with an easily understood interface. In the “demo mode” the software would allow me to convert up to three minutes of video. My file was just over a minute long, so no problem. Drop the file, select your output format, and press the key. Simple. I found the format listed under the iPod category instead of iPad, but wasn’t too particular since the same operating system existed on both devices. I selected my Movie Maker file and pressed the button. Bingo – a fresh MPEG-4 file.

Getting my video loaded into the iPad required iTunes, and more familiarity with the App portion of iTunes than I possessed. After some more hair-pulling, I finally discovered the “shared file” section of the App panel and sure enough, there was my Loop Video app listed as being able to use shared files. I put the MPEG-4 version of my video into the list, then hit “Synch” and prayed after quite a few false starts. Loop Video picked it up, listed it (finally), and wonder of wonders – played my trailer in a flawless loop!