The Snowflake Method in Action
One major planning step – done before any real drafting takes place – is character descriptions. Getting to know your characters helps to guide the plot when it comes time to actually draft the story. I use an extensive heuristic device (a series of questions) to help me describe the people who populate the pages of my books. This series of questions forces me to know important things about these people, some of which never finds its way onto the pages, but all of which affects the outcome.
As an example, here is the character sketch I did for the main character of The Point of Escape, Jerrod Beams:
Jerrod Beams (Protagonist)
Age: 48 (11 August 1964)
Motivation (abstract want): Fullness of life, happiness in the Greek sense of eudemonia.
Goal (concrete want): To split the dilemma of escaping a dreary, meaningless job and living up to his responsibilities as a bread winner and realistic “grown up.”
Conflict (Preventing him/her reaching goal): Jerrod lacks self-knowledge, so he doesn’t understand what would make him happy, and he is locked into financial and moral commitments that appear to bind him to his work, which in turn discourages self-reflection.
Epiphany (What he/she learns; how he/she changes): Jerrod comes to see that he doesn’t know (Socrates’ wisdom), and begins to question what it is that he wants and must do.
General physical description: Of medium height (5’ 10”), with brown hair thinning on top, and grey temples, he weighs 170 lbs. (14% BMI) down from 190 lbs., or about 25% body fat before he started working out with colleague and friend Fred Trudham, his once-athletic frame weighed down by neglect rather than abuse.
Hometown: Born and raised in Bowie, Maryland, he grew up in the suburbs that sprawled to accommodate the growing federal workforce.
He is married to the former Janice Howland of Laurel, Maryland, whom he met at a coffee shop soon after returning to the DC area after college. This is the only marriage for each of them, and together they have one grown son, Matthew, who lives in Seattle.
Jerrod’s parents, Matthew and Mary, retired to Naples, Florida, seven years ago. Matthew worked forty years for McDonnell-Douglas, and Mary held a job as a high school administrative assistant once Jerrod and his two younger sisters entered school.
Friends: Jerrod has no close friends, a consequence of his long years of 13-hour days. The closest relationship he enjoys is that with co-worker Fred Trudham, with whom he has struck up a workout partnership. Jerrod has no “guys” upon which to call for companionship or assistance.
Other close relationships: He remains close to his parents, whom he calls regularly and visits annually. He also keeps in touch with his two younger sisters via email and social media (Facebook).
Relationship with men: Jerrod establishes “good working relationships” with those around him, but nothing deeper. It’s not that he lacks a “deep-down” (pace, Hermione Granger), but that he has habituated himself to emotional solitude. He enjoys company, but does not seek it out for lack of time, but more so for lack of practice and hope.
Relationship with women: He is and has been a faithful husband, though not immune to the charms of a pretty face or shapely leg. Knowing his weakness, he is careful to maintain professional decorum with the few women of his acquaintance.
Job: Jerrod is a GS-14 Office Manager in RITA’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, with two employees reporting to him (GS-7 and -11). Both are competent and reliable, making his role almost superfluous. Still, he is in line for promotion to Deputy Associate Administrator, and occasionally serves as Acting AA in the absence of the AA and Deputy. He does not aspire to promotion, but takes the steps expected of someone his rank who does. He does so more out of inertia than duty; it’s “what’s done,” but it’s habit that makes him join in to the extent that he does.
Dress style: Since his promotion to Office Director, he has been one of the “suits.” Joseph A. Bank was his friend at first. Later raises have allowed him to explore Brooks Brothers, ascending the earning-and-spending spiral of the government executive.
Religion: He is a faithful Catholic, born and raised. Temptation brings his faith to the surface. Still, his faith is usually in the background. He is dutiful, and follows the rules, but not out of any close personal sense of God in his life. This will challenge him as he begins to examine his life, and he has the opportunity to either see his faith life as another manifestation of the Void, or this question itself as evidence that the 4HWW life is suspect.
Attitude to religion: See above.
Favorite pastimes: Reading, cooking and, lately, exercise.
Hobbies: None really. He is too time-starved to imagine carving out any hobby time.
Favorite sports: He watches pro football, a lifelong Ravens fan
Favorite foods: Jerrod is an omnivore in the fullest sense, and enjoys exploring in the kitchen when he can. This is an area for growth.
Strongest positive personality trait: Perseverance.
Strongest negative personality trait: Exteriorly, the willingness to doggedly endure. Interiorly, the ability to suppress displeasure and the resulting anger.
Sense of humor: He is “quick,” and given to quoting or paraphrasing lines from movies and literature. Janice, though far from unintelligent, is often left behind by his rapid trains of thought, something he finds endearing.
Temper: A melancholic, but on the cusp with choleric, which will come out more so as he realizes his plight.
Consideration for others: He is kind in his words, but doesn’t go beyond the surface. He’s not a “get to know you” boss or coworker.
How other people see him/her: Some see him as detached and uncaring, but he is simply habitually a man apart.
Opinion of him/herself: He knows he has done well by his employer and his family, and feels a certain pride. But he believes he should be happier for this, and suspects that he is missing something or doing something wrong.
Other traits, especially those to be brought out in story: Fast driver; needs alone time, but not as much as he thinks. And he is angrier than he knows, and doesn’t know why when he discovers that he is [quere: Does the anger come out before or after the 4-Hour process has begun?]
Ambitions: A secure retirement, but not much beyond that Void.
Philosophy of life: He lacks one. He has “done” more than thought of why. He will probably not address this aspect of the Void, but will feel satisfied with the rich life of exploration Ferriss sells.
Most important thing to know about this character: Though he is unhappy, he doesn’t know how unhappy he is. Though he is capable, he doesn’t know how capable. Though he knows he could be happy, he doesn’t know how happy. In short, he does not know himself.
Will readers like or dislike this character, and why? Readers will relate to his dull existence, and his anger when he sees it for what it is. They will vicariously thrill to the escape theme and Jerrod’s ultimate triumph.
One-Paragraph POV Summary
The dullness, the monotony of my life first became apparent to me as I droned to work in DC, where I contributed to the hive-collective. The hum of tires on the Beltway concrete had for years filled the hollow space that was my life; now I heard an echo. I had sounded the Void. Seeking “escape,” I found inspiration in Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Work Week, and stepped through the looking glass. I didn’t know what I wanted to escape to, just that I wanted to escape from, which was good enough for me. Or so I thought. I cleared all the fillers from my life, from the hum of my tires (telework reduced it, then remote work eliminated it), to the 10-year-old moving boxes in my garage (I can park my car in it!), to every unnecessary email twitch. Following Ferriss’ advice, I started my own business , which grew rapidly, as did that Echo inside me and the unease of my family, until Panic! I retreated to the safety of my office, only to discover in the midst of bureaucratic conformity the strength and peace necessary for a self-directed life.
So, there you have it: a glimpse inside the process that brought The Point of Escape to life. In future posts I’ll offer some sneak-peeks into the current project, and maybe even invite you to contribute to the process.
Wow! What a launch day!
After spending the day posting to dozens of sites, sending dozens of messages on Goodreads and Twitter (and getting politely asked to stop by the former and suspended by the latter!), and clicking on the “Refresh” buttons on the Kindle Direct Publishing sales report and the Amazon book page, I called it quits around 6:30 pm. I was happy with the results. Sales stood at 125, breaking the triple-digit goal I’d set. Comfortable in that this metric had been met, I headed out for a local concert with some friends.
A good time was had by all.
By the time I got home and checked One Last Time, though, sales were over 200! That’s twice the goal I’d set. And, the book stood at #25 in the General Humor category for free Kindle books, just under 2,000 overall. Not too shabby for first novel.
And then, this morning, this greeted me:
That’s right. Almost 300 downloads, three times my goal. Whoot!
Curious, I headed over to the book’s Amazon page and saw this:
#13?! That’s above the fold. And teetering on the top 900 overall! [And the news is even better. In the time it’s taken me to compose this post, the book has climbed to #12 in General Humor and #863 overall.]
I share all this with you, well, because I’m so excited. But more so to say thank you to all those who lent their support and spread the word. Writing the book is only part of the process, and I owe a debt of gratitude to all those who have helped make this launch a success.
And the launch goes on. Today is The Point of Escape‘s second “promo” day (i.e. it’s free!), so keep spreading the good word, and I’ll keep you posted on how things shake out.
Or, How to Make Friends with Garbage Men
So, as usual, this Thursday morning I’m sitting at the breakfast bar in my kitchen, typing away (see the banner pic above for a visual if you like). And, likewise as usual on Thursdays, I hear the telltale sounds of a garbage truck. And, of course, the bloody trash and recycling cans are still lined up along my back fence.
So, knowing all is not lost, I head out to move the recycling cans to the road. That truck always comes later and, again as usual, the garbage truck driving by had served as my calendar alert. (Note to my dumb self: ADD a calendar alert to take out trash and recycling).
Sure enough, I spy the back end of the garbage truck as I descend the back deck steps, the two men busy loading trash from my neighbor’s house further up the road. I dutifully grab hold of the two wheeled, 50-gallon recycling cans and drag them to the road. One is bright yellow, an official “gift” from the county, the other the standard dark green with a faded recycling symbol stenciled on the sides and top. I pause a moment, rearranging the boxes and bags in this home-made can, concerned that the recycling folks will yet again mistake it for trash. (Second note to self: repaint the bloody recycling symbol).
As I’m standing there, I hear the garbage truck’s klaxon come on, and look up to see it backing down the road toward me. As in, coming BACK to get my trash. Unprecedented, right? At first I waive them off, saying the cans are recycling, fodder for a later truck. But then, I say, “Wait, I do have trash,” and run to get that can and roll it to them.
“Wait a minute,” you’re saying. “You mean to tell me that these guys went out of their way to get your trash? To come BACK for it??”
And all because of the 100 or so bags I’d left them to pick up back in March.
Oh, did I mention the beer?
So, full story: I had been getting the house prepped for the market all winter and early spring, and leaving increasingly large amounts of trash by the road. And then it came time to replace the basement carpet. I could have paid Home Depot to remove the old stuff, but at $.50 a square foot – meaning about $500 for the whole basement – I figured I’d have some fun with a razor knife.
My only concern was the sheer volume of trash I’d be producing, upwards of 30 bags heavy with carpet and padding. And I couldn’t stagger the pick-ups, meting out the bags over several weeks to even the load. No, the house was going on the market and the garage needed to be empty.
Enter the beer.
My home-improvement-wise stepfather suggested an excellent course of action: bribe the garbage men.
So, late one Wednesday in early April, I dragged about 20 bags to the road. It had just rained and was chilly, projected to reach the low 40s at night. Perfect. So, atop a few bags but hidden beneath another layer, I left a case of Yuengling Lager. I chose cans to avoid the possibility of breakage, even though every fiber of my being recoils at the thought of canned beer, and hoped the men would be pleased.
As far as I knew, they were. In the morning, the bags were gone. All of them. And so was the beer. And so were the bags and bags and bags I left for them the following month, as my preparations wore on.
But until this morning I had nothing but circumstantial confirmation of how effective my ploy had been.
As he walks up to retrieve my trashcan from me, the tall, somewhat disheveled and unshaven young man smiles and says, “Hey, thanks for the beer you left that time.” Behind him, his older and heavier black companion smiles a knowing smile.
“No problem,” I say. “Figured I was asking a lot.”
With another smile, they empty my trash and climb back aboard the truck as it drives off.
Mission accomplished. And all for about $18.
Sam Baker, former maven of the fashion publishing industry, weighs in about leaving the rat race and making her own way. The similarities to Jerrod Beams’ fears are interesting, so I thought I’d share.
Any author worth his salt writes with a genre in mind. I’ll make no claims about my saltiness either way, but The Point of Escape was written with a couple genres in mind, one of which I’ll discuss today: suburban fiction.
Conversely, the Goodreads shelf for the genre that pops up as the third link in our Google search includes a majority of young adult lit. OK, teen girls’ lit. Judy Bloom and the like. Angst, adultery and ennui writ young. Not exactly what I’m going for here.
“So,” you ask, “just what are you about?”
Glad you asked. There are actually several flavors of suburban lit, all of which – unsurprisingly – draw thematic elements from those ubiquitous sprawling subdivisions and side streets. As you can tell from the brief descriptions above, this can be a fairly dark mode of writing, inevitably contrasting with the cheery stereotype of white picket fences and 2.5 kids. The darkness can become pervasive, as in subgenres like suburban gothic – which introduces elements of the supernatural and science fiction – or suburban noir – which slides into psychosis and horror.
My current project (yes, I’m writing The Next One even as I steer This One toward launch day) edges into these subgenres. It’s a three-part series that takes a rather dark look at what the world of cookie-cutter houses and conspicuous consumption can do to your soul. I hope to have the first installment in beta form by the fall, and to market before Christmas. Weary food for cheery souls. Ho. Ho. Ho.
Not so much The Point of Escape. I wrote it with beach reading in mind, and so – though not uncritical of suburban life – its themes are far more uplifting, its trajectory more hopeful. Jerrod Beams experiences all the aimless ennui of any suburban fiction hero. But although the ‘burbs in some ways embody the Faustian bargain he has struck with the Federal Mephistopheles – they and the life they promise are the false fruits of his soul-crushing labor – Jerrod is largely happy with what he has provided for his family. Just not how he has provided it. That’s what he hopes to change.
The great source of that hope – the ability to take stock and the courage to change – was inspired by a non-fiction work, and places the novel itself into a new genre, something I call entrepreneurial fiction. Defining this new genre will be the focus of my next post.