Happy Monday!!! Welcome to No Wasted Ink’s top-ten writers articles. As I surf the internet, I save craft articles that intrigue me and which I hope will also interest you. This week I found some great ones, so pour yourself the beverage of your choice and enjoy.
When I asked PJ Manney to describe herself as a writer, she said, “I’m a human sponge, and culture and SF geek. Everything is connected and I’ll show you the network.” Please welcome her to No Wasted Ink.
PJ Manney wrote the bestselling and P.K. Dick Award nominated novel, (R)EVOLUTION (2015, 47North) in the Phoenix Horizon trilogy with, (ID)ENTITY (2017), and (CON)SCIENCE, (2021). A former chairperson of Humanity+, she authored “Yucky Gets Yummy: How Speculative Fiction Creates Society“ and “Empathy in the Time of Technology: How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy,” foundational works on the neuropsychology of empathy and future media. Manney consults and lectures for organizations about the future of technology and humanity. She was a teleplay writer (Hercules–The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, numerous TV pilot scripts) and film executive. Manney has two children, lives with her husband in Southern California and is a dual citizen of the US and New Zealand.
When and why did you begin writing?
My husband and I went to New Zealand in 1993, so he could produce five TV movies based on Hercules. I had just left running one production company and was negotiating to run another. But I didn’t want to be away from my husband for 9 months, so I put the job search on hold and joined him in Auckland. I was so bored doing nothing, I thought I’d write a spec feature length script to pass the days. For thirty years, I had believed the lies told by my teachers who mistrusted my dyslexia, and my producers who believed that production executives didn’t have what it took to be writers. My spec was good enough for me to pitch the executive producer in charge of the new episodic TV series in the works, Hercules—The Legendary Journeys, then Xena: Warrior Princess. We were in New Zealand for seven years and had two children there.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I considered myself a screenwriter after my first sale to Hercules—The Legendary Journeys. I considered myself a novelist after selling (R)EVOLUTION. I considered myself a short story writer after selling “Ours” to the ghost story anthology, December Tales. Even though writing is what makes one a writer, I like a pro sale to feel like I’ve earned the moniker. But that’s just me.
Can you share a little about your current book with us?
(CON)SCIENCE is the third book in the Phoenix Horizon trilogy. Five years ago, bioengineer Peter Bernhardt spearheaded an innovation in nanotechnology that changed the course of evolution. Until everything was taken from him—his research, the people he loved, and finally his life. Uploaded as an artificial intelligence, Peter is alive again thanks to a critical reactivation by fellow AI Carter Potsdam.
But a third sentient computer program, Major Tom, is tearing the United States apart, destroying its leaders and its cities. Major Tom’s mission: rebuild a new America from the ruins and reign as uncontested monarch. Carter knows that only a revolutionary like Peter can reverse the damage to a country set on fire.
Caught in a virtual world between an alleged ally and an enemy, pieces of Peter’s former self remain: the need for vengeance, empathy for the subjugated people of a derelict world, and doubt in everything he’s been led to believe. To rescue what’s left, he’ll need to once again advance the notion of evolution and to expand the meaning of being human—by saving humanity.
What inspired you to write this book?
I love American history, having been an American Studies major in college. I love futurism, where I watch trends in society and culture and figure out the possible futures that may occur. And I love neuroscience. I taught myself neuroscience to imagine the possible brain-computer interface technologies (BCIs) in the novels. They must be good enough, because at least one major BCI company has replicated them. Imagining how a person would change with an implanted BCI, then change again as a digital personality is the best fun ever.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I think my style changes with the story told and the point of view. In the Phoenix Horizon trilogy, it’s close third person in the mind of a scientist, but as the protagonist shifts personality, the writing does, too. “Ours” is a story told by three ghost children as a collective entity. But I have techniques that are consistent story to story, including how I brainstorm, structure and write all over the place, in layers. I call it sedimentary writing, as I lay down the different layer details at different times.
How did you come up with the title of this book?
My first editor at 47North, Jason Kirk, came up with (R)EVOLUTION. I took the format of parentheses as a starting point, and added one letter more to inside the parenthesis to indicate the number of the book in the series: (R), (ID), (CON). Then I had fun coming up with words that were thematically correct and could exist on their own inside, outside, and separate of the parentheses. Each title has several meanings or thematic references. I think it worked.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Change happens. Technology advances. We can’t stop it, nor should we. Technology is morally neutral. What matters are the choices we, as a society, make for its use. And we have a voice in those decisions if we chose to say it.
Are experiences in this book based on someone you know, or events in
your own life?
The series protagonist cognates, memorizes and problem-solves through music. My daughter does this. I find her brain so interesting, I created a hero/anti-hero based on it. And several characters are based on or are composites of people I know. I’ve made a lot of parents happy by making their adult children fictional doctors, lawyers and Wolfesque ‘masters of the universe.’
What authors have most influenced your life? What about them do you find inspiring?
Alexander Dumas inspired all three books with The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask respectively. Dumas was a magnificent storyteller, and especially in The Count of Monte Cristo, the political technothriller writer of his time, as the Count uses early 19th Century technologies to foil his enemies.
Mary Shelley is my compass, always pointing the way. From Frankenstein, depicting the OG scientifically-created human, to The Last Man, with its deep contemplation of what makes human beings necessary, she asked the hardest questions as the first science fiction author. We still ask the same questions today.
If you had to choose, is there a writer would you consider a mentor? Why?
Two writers mentored and helped me over the last several years. Joe Quirk picked me up and dusted me off when I had given up on an early draft of (R)EVOLUTION that was a disaster. He focused on solutions and gave me the best notes a writer could ask for, because they worked. I learned so much from him as a first-time novelist. Cat Rambo came into my life when I needed her most. I had writers block and took Eileen Gunn’s excellent writer’s block class at Clarion West online. At the end, she said we should join Cat Rambo’s daily co-writing group and continue with classes at The Rambo Academy. I did both. They allowed me to finish (CON)SCIENCE and take it to publication, as well as teach me how to write short stories, leading to “Ours.” I’m a lucky writer to have such mentors and friends.
Who designed the cover of your book? Why did you select this illustrator?
I told 47North that I wanted covers that were the 21st Century version of the surreal, psychedelic SFF covers I loved as a child in the 1970s. Jason Kirk and I searched the web for a great artist and found Adam Martinakis. We adore him and his three-dimensional, CGI surrealist style. They speak to the drama and individual conflicts of each book. (R)EVOLUTION depicts the painful emergence of a new kind of human. (ID)ENTITY refers to the fracturing of identity in artificial human intelligences and the different bodies they inhabit. (CON)SCIENCE references how many iterations of a single mind can occur when digital entities exist. The images were perfect.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Write. Don’t give up. I imagined the seed of an idea in 1993 that became (R)EVOLUTION, published in 2015. During that time, I wrote for television, ghostwrote for movies, published my first academic journal article, consulted as a futurist, helped run a PTA, reorganized and accelerated STEM classes in our schools, raised two children, cared for six parents, and had my own health crises. I have dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia, as well as late-discovered ADHD. In theory, I should be the last person writing anything. But it turns out that dyslexics are unusually good storytellers, but we’re only learning that now. Against conventional wisdom, I do the thing I was told never to do. You can, too.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Don’t be afraid of the future. We are all more resilient and powerful than we think. We can make a better world together, if we want one.
Orange County, CA
Welcome to No Wasted Ink’s writer links. These are articles that caught my attention while surfing the internet. I hope that you find them as interesting as I did. Enjoy.
Welcome to No Wasted Ink’s top ten list of writing craft articles. As the weeks go by, I earmark articles that I find go a bit above and beyond and bring them here to share with you. I hope you enjoy this batch!
WARNING: In this article I showcase two book trailers I made. I think they’re pretty awesome and above the average self-made material out there. Despite the evident awesomeness, the objective of this article is not to boast about my outstanding multimedia skills, but simply as a case study. The ultimate goal here is for you to become aware of the software tools which are available for free (or for a moderate investment) as an alternative to spending hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, (up to $15,000) on a professional job. IF, and I repeat, IF, you are willing to climb a few learning curves.
First of all, I would like to discuss WHY you should invest time (or money, should you choose the professional option) in a book trailer.
Book trailers are living blurbs. They engage the senses with a concentrated, sizzling bomb of pure narrative. Compared to a properly designed trailer the typical text blurb is no more than a footnote. Prospective readers can see your protagonist, hear the soundtrack and survey the setting. A book trailer can convey the atmosphere, the theme of the novel, and will make it clear to the viewer that if the trailer resonates with them, then they HAVE to buy the book.
In order to reach this goal, whichever route you choose to take, you need to be able to produce at least a decent summary of what your story is about. An illustrated storyboard of the trailer would be ideal. I mean, you can always toss a copy of the manuscript in the artist’s hands and let them come up with an idea but:
1. it’ll cost you more and
2. it’s YOUR story, dammit.
To me it’s like asking the neighbor to pick your daughter’s prom dress, and hoping he doesn’t get the wrong idea and follow his personal hentai tastes. So, no matter what, either make a pencil & pen ink sketch of your trailer, or use storyboarding software.
“Boords” is a free-to-try storyboarding platform, but they’re so cool about the whole deal they also give you links to alternative options.
If you wish seek the help of a professional for your book trailer, then you can stop reading here. There are many excellent videomakers out there and not one of them offered to sponsor me, so no links.
If you wish to know how I made my own book trailers, and want to try yourself, then we’re ready for the next step.
Yes. you have to do that bit anyway. It is essential for you to get a clear idea of the timing, because a good trailer lasts between 20 and 30 seconds, and there is always the tendency to try and cram too much in that time.
A storyboard will let you visualize your scenes and realize you’re never gonna fit the whole book in five panels.
So? What should your trailer be about? Think about your story…does it rely on strong characters? Does it narrate a fall into darkness, a rise to higher levels of being? What color is your novel? Try to visualize your work in terms of movement, color, light and character.
Case study: The Descent
For my Historical fiction novel “The 45th Nail” I didn’t take too much to find the correct format. The narrative starts as a light-hearted escapade to Italy, but gradually descends into a dark quest of a man seeking impossible forgiveness. The key-word there was “descends”. And the trailer is a long, slow scrolling movement downwards. A narration, in the voice of the protagonist, gives a first-person retelling of the blurb while a few items flutter past and the whole background darkens. The final landing displays the title of the book.
How I did it:
I used a free image editing software called “Gimp” to patch together images into a long, vertical strip. If you have Photoshop or have worked with it, Gimp is fairly similar and there are a lot of tutorials online to learn the basics you need to stitch pictures together. Time: 3 hours
The image of the golden “bulla” was created using a free 3D tool. (The one I used back then is not available anymore but there are many titles out there. If you can create a sphere, flatten it, and apply a picture of a gold medallion as texture, you can make the bulla. Depending on the software it may take you more or less time to figure out how to animate it spinning on itself. This was the result:
Notice the black background. Some programs will let you create videos with transparent backgrounds, but they’re usually not free. Black is a good workaround. Time: 2 1/2 hours.
All the other things you see floating up in the video are static .png images I made using Gimp. .png images can have transparency. Time: 30 minutes.
I found the music on freesound.org which is exactly what it looks like: a free sound library. You are required to create an account and, if the composer requires it, mention them in the credits. I used Audacity to put the sounds together with my own voice. I was able to balance the levels and darken the tone, after twiddling around a bit with the various effects. Time: 1 hour.
I put it all together with video editing software. There are free video editing programs (DaVinci Resolve is Hollywood-grade production software and it’s 100% free. It’s also bloody murder to figure out.) I bought Filmora, which is $60 and is much more intuitive. Time: 2 hours.
A total of nine hours of work, and I got to keep the video editing software for future book trailers. Did I do it again?
You bet I did.
Case study: The Character
For my recent novel “To Cipher and to Sing” I wanted the viewer to do two things: get to know one of my main characters and get really suspicious about him. Once again I opted for the downwards scroll. I may have a thing about vertical drops, I don’t know. Anyway, this time the fall had to be a real one, a drop from a futuristic high-rise.
The trailer begins as a futuristic ad for some kind of A.I. chip. As the chip upgrades make it faster and more powerful the ad itself glitches off as the technology evolves into a robotic skeleton.
As the figure continues to evolve the camera speeds ahead and, upon reaching the bottom of the building, it witnesses the landing of the finished product, a complete android with eerie golden eyes which turns towards the camera and, in a not altogether disturbing way, smiles.
How I did it:
Again, I went hunting for freebies and found Kitbash 3D, an amazing team that produces professional cityscapes and which, occasionally, gives out some free kits. I got their “Utopia” city, a $199,00 value, for free. The sheer quality of their kits has me thinking seriously of spending some real money the next time I need a 3D cityscape and I’m not lucky enough to find another freebie. I also used it as background for the cover of the book.
I used Meshmixer to select and move the buildings around, and save the result as an .obj file. Then I used it in Daz 3D Studio, where I created my character.
Now, Daz 3D is a BEAST of a program. It relies on high-performing computers to give you photo-realistic poseable humans. Yes, it’s free.
But you need to pay if you want to buy more props and characters. The prices are not terribly high and if you need something specific, you might want to spend twelve dollars on top of a fully-fledged 3D video studio which you just downloaded for free.
It takes a while to figure out all the things you can do with Daz3D, so take your time. All in all, between creating my character, finding some stray 3D skeleton on-line, importing everything, lighting and animating, it took me over ten hours.
Plus another FORTY HOURS to render the final animation. Luckily I was able to render blocks of frames and save them as clips, so I could use my computer for other things. Otherwise, while rendering, the intense CPU usage made it impossible to even browse the Internet.
Once more, I used Filmora to patch the clips together and include the soundtrack and sound effects from Freesound. I also made use of the excellent title kits and special effects included in the video editing software.
A conclusive thought:
I personally rely a lot on 3D animation, because I happen to have a background in multimedia design, and it comes in handy, especially if the subject is science-fiction. But bear in mind that I designed my trailers with the foreknowledge of the video footage I could produce myself or the 3D models I knew I could find.
You can reach great results even if you choose to shoot a whole live-action sequence with real actors and costumes, if that’s more in your set of skills. Use the material you are most familiar with, and your result will be more in your own style. Remember that in order for your trailer to be effective it has to focus on the emotion and the atmosphere more than the plot itself.
Thank you for taking the time to read this longer than usual article. I hope you found it useful and inspiring.
Ian Lahey, author, dreamer, and Olympic-level binge-watcher, teaches English Language and Literature in Italy. Apart from writing arguably decent fiction, he also cooks with nearly edible results, tinkers with computer graphics, and does quite a lot of gardening, since he needs to replace all the plants he’s inadvertently killed.
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