Thoughts on Anti-Heroes

When I was a kid, I was taught that a protagonist was the hero of the story. As I got older, I learned that the protagonist was actually the person who moved the story along – they didn’t have to be a “hero.” They could, in fact, be anti-heroes.

That distinction opens up a whole new world of literary adventures. It means you can have an undesirable as your protagonist and it’s okay. The trick is to make some part of the anti-hero relatable or likable.

Chuck Wendig’s Double Dead has a vampire named Coburn as the protagonist, and he’s pretty badass. The thing is, he’s not altruistic or noble. He’s got his own agendas and goals. So what makes him a good protagonist? Well, Coburn comes across as a total douche to pretty much everyone he meets, but he displays tenderness and compassion for a young girl that he winds up traveling with. Through their relationship you see a bit of humanity in the monster. You get bits of insight into a part of Coburn’s nature that is both human and humane, and while you know he’s not a good person, you realize he’s a good bad person.

For me, the most powerful example of anti-heroism came from Doctor Doom. Back in the early 90’s, Marvel put out a line of comics set in the year 2099. Doom was featured in his own book, shown as having time traveled from the present to the future. In that future, the country Doom ruled,  Latveria, had all but forgotten its former monarch and was ruled by a greedy cyborg named Tiger Wylde. The comics follow Doom as he tries to wrest power from Wylde. And to do that, Doom has to win over the people. So he begins providing food for the hungry and medicine for the sick. I was disturbed when I realized I was rooting for Victor Von Doom. This was the guy who tried to kill most of my heroes, after all. If Doom’d had his way, Iron Man, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four would have been demolecularized by some hideous device a hundred times over. And yet, there I was, cheering for him.

Having a villian with a lot of history (like Doom) be the protagonist of your story can be very powerful. But compare that to when Marvel tried to spin Spidey-nemesis Venom off as a hero. The upshot was Venom realized that many people out there are innocents, like he had been before Spider-Man hurt him. (Venom had a bit of twisted perspective on reality. Spidey rejected the Venom suit before it could take over his mind. That hurt the suit’s feelings. I fall squarely in Spidey’s camp on this one, hurt feelings be damned.) So Venom decides he’s going to protect innocents (but he still hates Spider-Man). This didn’t work for me because it was a total 180 on the character’s attitude. Venom suddenly goes from being obsessed with getting revenge on Spider-Man to having an altruistic world view.

Doom, on the other hand, is  always a smug, selfish bastard. He’s only looking to restore Latveria so he can seize power. He uses people to achieve his goals, and he’s brazen about it. Still, you find yourself cheering him on because he’s fighting an even bigger evil, and you want to see that evil displaced.

So my takeaway here is this. If you want to have a good anti-hero, exagerrate their negative personality traits, and make sure they have a lot of them. But then give them one thing, whether that’s a relationship or an inner monologue, that makes them relatable, likable and human, because that’s what’s going to make readers stick with them and cheer them on.

Anything you’d like to add on anti-heroes? Sound off in the comments.

4 Paid Apps for Writers

I wanted to round out my “Apps for Writers” series with a selection of paid apps folks might find useful. I’ll skip the obvious, like MS Word or WordPerfect (because, yes, surprisingly the word processing program from my 10th grade computer class is still for sale. Funny, that.) Here they are, in no particular order:

Scrivener – This app has it all: outlining, note-taking, character sheet templates and more. It’s a fantastic way to plot, plan and write your novel. Once you’ve written your masterpiece, Scrivener can export it in many different formats, including MS Word, .mobi and .epub. You can find a bunch of tutorial videos I’ve done here on the site, and you can pick up a copy here for $40 (Windows) or $45 (Mac) here

OneNote – OneNote is the unsung hero of Microsoft Office. In fact, most people who have Office don’t even realize they have OneNote. OneNote allows you to organize notes into virtual notebooks making it perfect for story bibles and managing your reference materials. Find an article on the web that’ll be handy later? Just drag it into OneNote, and everything including images and formatting is preserved. I use it extensively and heartily recommend it. If you buy it standalone, it’s $79.99.

WriteOrDie – There’s a free web version of this app, but the downloadable client has the advantage of not being tied to that behemoth distraction that is the Internet. Set a timer, say how many words you want to write in that time and go. If you stop typing for a few seconds, it beeps, flashes and otherwise jolts you back to work. Great for when you need to bust out a number of words in a short period of time. $10 from writeordie.com.

DropBox – Hey, wait a sec, Nick, didn’t you say DropBox was free? Why yes, it is. The free version of DropBox gets you 2 GB of space in the cloud, but there are paid subscriptions that let you expand that out to 50 GB or 100 GB, depending on your needs. 50 GB = $9.99/mo, 100 GB = $19.99/mo. Learn more here.

Any others you’d recommend? Sound off in the comments. Also sound off if you’re still using WordPerfect, because, well, wow.

6 iPad Apps for Writers

If you got a shiny new iPad for Christmas, you’re probably looking for some writer-type apps. Here are several that I use. Click on the app’s name to learn more:

CleanWriter – I’m big on distraction-free environments when I’m trying to pound out words. This little app gives you a clean writing environment. Turn on the Hacker theme and you get the old school green-screen word processor feel.

Notability – this is the end-all be-all of note taking apps. It lets you handwrite notes, type, take audio recordings, insert drawings or photos and more. Perfect for your story bible or research notebook.

OneNote – If you’re a Microsoft Office 2010 user and OneNote is your story bible/research notebook of choice, you can’t go wrong with this one. It’ll synch with the OneNote notebooks on your PC so your data will always stay current.

Storyist – The closest thing to Scrivener that I can find for the iPad. Storyist gives you the ability to create notecard-based outlines and then write out the text of your manuscript. It also has templates for character sheets, settings and more.

DropBox – This is essentially a folder out in cyberspace where you can toss your files and then access them from any device. So write some notes in Notability or jot off a scene in CleanWriter and then send it off your PC or Mac via DropBox. All the apps listed above have an option to sync with DropBox (except for OneNote, which uses SkyDrive from Microsoft). This’ll also backup your files to the could automatically, in case your iPad has an unfortunate encounter with your toddler.

Pandora – I usually don’t listen to music when I write, but I know there are a ton of people who do. Pandora gives you a personalized, streaming radio station tailored to your unique musical tastes.

Are there other iPad apps you use when writing? Sound off in the comments.

5 Free Apps for Writers

If you or a writer in your life is considering a New Year’s Resolution to write more, or be more disciplined about writing, here are 5 free programs that can help you.

1 – Q10
This is a bare-bones editor that looks and feels like an old school word processor, green screen and all. It has no formatting capabilities, no bells or whistles and is absolutely perfect when you just want to sit down and pound out 2,000 words. I wrote the majority of IMPERIUM using Q10, and heartily recommend it. www.baara.com/q10.

2 – DropBox
Backing up your files is a lot like flossing. Everyone knows they’re supposed to do it, but your dentist will tell you that not everyone does it enough. Seriously, ask your dentist and he/she’ll tell you you aren’t backing up enough. To help with that, there’s DropBox. This is essentially a folder out in cyberspace where you can toss your files and then access them from any device. It’s ridiculously easy to set up, and any files you put in that folder are automatically backed up. Quick and easy. Your dentist will be proud of you. www.dropbox.com.

3 – Calibre
If you’re tech savvy, it’s easy enough to create a .mobi file of your novel. However, there are a bunch of other formats out there (epub, pdf, etc) and taking the time to create each individual file is a colossal PITA. Enter Calibre. Among other things, this tool allows you to convert files from one format to another and then preview them to ensure they look good. http://calibre-ebook.com.

4 – PureText
Sometimes when you’re researching, you’ll copy a big chunk of text off the web and then paste it into your story bible. Then you spend 5 minutes cleaning up any screwball formatting issues that came through (why the hell is the left margin set to 5″?). For those moments, there’s PureText. Just press Windows+V and your text gets dropped into the current document, sans any formatting. www.stevemiller.net/puretext.

5 – Paint.NET
For the do-it-yourself cover artist on a budget, Paint.NET is a fantastic tool. It has many of the same features you know and love from tools like Photoshop, but without the hefty price tag. www.getpaint.net.

Any other tools you’d recommend? Sound off in the comments.

Captain America vs. Green Lantern

I missed both Green Lantern and Captain America in the movie theaters this past summer. I was able to rectify that thanks to the magic that is my PS3. I loved both these characters when I was a kid and was excited to see them brought to life.

I watched GL first and while it was fun it wasn’t as great as I’d hoped. Then I watched Captain America and was blown away. That movie was brilliantly done and I loved every minute of it. Once the credits were over and I’d seen the Avengers trailer, I started thinking what made Cap so much better than GL. The special effects were good in both films and I liked the casting.

That left the writing.

So here are three things I learned about writing from watching these films.

Characters Need Goals
In Captain America, Steve Rogers starts out as a 90 lb. weakling who wants to join the army. He tries a bunch of things to enlist and finally succeeds. Then he struggles to gain respect as a soldier, is injected with the Super Soldier serum and becomes Captain America. When he learns his friends have been kidnapped by Nazis, he goes off to help them. And ultimately, he has his final showdown with the Red Skull.

See the pattern there? Event. Boom. Event. Boom. Cap is always marching to complete another mission.

Compare that to Green Lantern. Hal Jordan starts out in a botched test flight. After getting reamed out by his employer, he finds Abin Sur, who gives him the power ring. He gets taken to Oa where he’s told about being a Green Lantern and the responsibilities that brings. He turns his back on it, goes back to Earth and sort of drifts through the movie until the final
confrontation in the end.

So the lesson here is drifting is not satisfying for your audience. A character needs to be moving toward a goal or desire.

Characters Need Good Antagonists
In Captain America, you’ve got the Red Skull. He’s a super-Nazi with incredible strength and a cunning intellect. He masterminds an organization called Hydra and in all ways he’s basically the anti-Captain America. His motives (global domination) stay true the entire film and he, just like Cap, is always moving toward a goal. That keeps up the tension because when you watch the villain attain his goals, you know things are going to go bad for the hero.

In Green Lantern, we start out with Hector Hammond, a nerdy high school teacher who gets psychic powers after being exposed to a fragment of a powerful evil being called Paralax. Hammond uses his powers to get revenge on his overbearing father and he kidnaps Hal’s girlfriend, but beyond that his “evil” is pretty tame. At the end of the film, Paralax shows up and starts destroying GL’s city. Paralax here is just a giant yellow cloud with a face. We don’t get insight into its motives or its wants, so while the destruction it wreaks is impressive, it’s not satisfying. Even with Hector Hammond, I found myself feeling bad for the guy rather than hating him as a villain.

Lesson – Villains need goals to march toward just like the heroes, we need to understand what makes them tick, and while it’s okay to have a sympathetic villain, he/she needs to come across as a villain.

Characters Should Behave Consistently
In Captain America, Steve Rogers doesn’t back down from a fight even when he’s hopelessly
outclassed. He stands up for what he believes in and is willing to sacrifice himself for that.
That holds true when he’s 90 lbs, when he’s saving his friends from prison, and when he has the final battle with the Red Skull.

In Green Lantern, Hal vacillates from being cocky and arrogant to being insecure and borderline whiny. There were times when I just wanted to shake him and yell “Damn it man, you’ve got the most powerful weapon in the universe on your finger. Grow some balls!”

Lesson – Characters’ actions and attitudes should be consistent. Of course, they should grow and evolve, but having a character be cocky in one scene and then timid in another is jarring to the audience.

Any other writing tips you’ve picked up from movies? Sound off in the comments.

On Reading Your Work Aloud

Sooner or later, all writers are told that it’s a good idea to read your work aloud; it makes it easier to pick up on overused phrases and find sentences that are clunky. What’s even better is to have someone read your work to you. However, not everyone has their own own personal book reader at their beck and call. So the next best thing is to have your computer or Kindle read to you.

I started using the Text To Speech feature on my Kindle for this very reason. It sounds terrible, but it forces you to hear every word. And unlike reading it aloud yourself, the Kindle will never insert a word you’ve forgotten. Case in point, I’d written the sentence “the device was size of a paperback book.” I’d proofed the draft several times, but my brain always stuck the word “the” in there for me between “was” and “size”. When the Kindle read the sentence, I realized I’d missed the word and was able to fix it.

Granted, the Text To Speech feature sounds like an old fashioned Speak and Spell, so I just pretend that Stephen Hawking agreed to narrate my work. 🙂

How about you? Any other proofreading tips you’ve discovered? Sound off in the comments.

Gearstripper’s Hot Chocolate

In KRAMPUSNACHT, Gearstripper is given a thermos full of some very special hot chocolate. Regular folks like us can’t get hot chocolate like that, but the recipe below comes about as close as you can get outside of the North Pole.

  • 6 oz shaved milk chocolate (I recommend Callebaut)
  • 1 pint heavy cream
  • Pinch cinnamon
  • Whipped cream

To prepare:

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler. Slowly stir in the cream.  Heat the cream until warm, stirring constantly. Add the cinnamon and top with the whipped cream. Put a candy cane in for good measure.

Warning: This is extremely rich. You may not be able to drink a mug all by yourself, so snuggle up with someone to share it.

Enjoy!

KRAMPUSNACHT Now Available!

KRAMPUSNACHT is now available from Amazon and B&N!

As an added bonus, if you purchase Krampusnacht between now and 12/3, I’ll give you a free virtual autograph. And you’ll also be entered in a drawing to win an autographed paperback copy of my debut urban fantasy novel, IMPERIUM! Just forward your Amazon or B&N receipt to cpg@nicholasolivo.com. I’ll send out the autographs and announce the winner on 12/4.

Enjoy!

Thoughts on Getting Reviews

OK, so you’ve finished your novel. You’ve polished it until it gleams. You’ve had it professionally edited. You sprung for professional artwork. You’ve just posted it to Amazon. And now…

Now your book is up there with hundreds of thousands of others, and no one knows about it.

There are a bunch of things you can do to market your book, but one of the most effective is getting a review on a book blogger’s site. That puts you smack dab in front of your target audience and encourages them to buy your book. So here are some tips to land that review.

1 – Locate your target blogs. I used the Book Blogger Directory to find as many urban fantasy blogs as I could. Once you’ve found a bunch of sites, move on to step 2.

2 – Run recon. Make sure that the site accepts self-published books. Look for a link on the site called Review Policy (sometimes it’s in the About section as well). The Review Policy tells you what sort of books the blogger likes, if there are any genres they’re not accepting, and if they take self-pubbed books. If they say they don’t accept self-pubbed novels, then move on. Do not be “That Guy” who thinks he’s special and the rules don’t apply to him. Trust me, they do. If the reviewer doesn’t specify whether or not they take self-pubbed books it’s probably safe to pitch them.

2a – Assuming the site takes self-published books, have a look at some of the reviews that have already been posted. You’re looking for two things here. First, does the blogger like authors who write with your particular style? For example, my novel IMPERIUM is a lot closer to Jim Butcher than it is to Stephenie Meyer. Make sure that the reviewer goes for your type of book. Second, do you like the reviewer’s style? Some reviewers give lots of spoilers, others speak in generalities. Make sure you’re comfortable with how they work.

3 – Send a polite note to the reviewer. Address them by name, provide them with your book’s blurb and ask if they’d be interested in reviewing your book. Also provide your email and website (or blog address). Erika over at Badass Book Reviews has an entire post dedicated to just this point.

4 – Wait patiently. Some bloggers say that if you haven’t heard back from them in a week, they aren’t interested. Respect that. If you get no response, let it go and move on.

Alright, so let’s say you hear back and the reviewer is interested in your book. Yay! But now there’s one last step. You have to be prepared for whatever rating the reviewer gives you. The reviewer may not like your book. They may think your precious novel is a steaming pile of dog feces. Or worse, they may brand your novel with the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish). In that case, what do you do?

5 – Accept it. You don’t argue with the reviewer. You asked for their opinion, remember? It’s OK to be disappointed, upset or even mad. But you do that offline. Fire up an FPS and imagine fragging the reviewer. Take out your frustrations on a punching bag. Gripe to your significant other or your best friend, but do NOT do it in any kind of an online forum. Chalk it up to experience and move on.

However, assuming you have written a good book and you’ve done your homework so it’s in front of the right reviewer, you should receive a good review. And let me tell you, seeing 5 stars next to your book’s name is one heck of a feeling.

KRAMPUSNACHT Cover Art & Blurb

I’m very excited to reveal my secret holiday project! So here it is: KRAMPUSNACHT!

An 8,000 word collection of short stories, featuring:

Krampusnacht:
Santa’s been kidnapped by his demonic ex-partner, Krampus! Can Gearstripper the gremlin and Jake the security guard free St. Nick in time for Christmas?

Pause:
Time’s been frozen on Christmas eve and two Chroniclers are dispatched to investigate. Find out what happens when they encounter someone dressed as super-hero Commander Courageous!

Fulfillment:
A mysterious figure known as Stranger Wolfram prepares to summon a creature from the pits of Hell on Christmas Eve. Will fortune teller Mrs. Rita stop him?

Want to be the first to know when KRAMPUSNACHT is available? Sign up for my newsletter via the sidebar!