Chairs of the Art Center

The chairs–by themselves–looked unremarkable to the casual passer-by. Years of use had faded their azure hue to a dull bluish-gray. The lusterless material did little to recommend them, other than offer a molded plastic rest for a group of weary humans.

I watched as an aging volunteer set out rows of the chairs on the shiny linoleum-tiled floor of the Fine Arts Center. He calmly wheeled one stack out, maneuvering them around with a practiced hand. Row after row appeared, like gray-blue soldiers at ease lined up around a center aisle, waiting for their commander to appear and make them stand at attention.

An air of resignation hovered over each chair which only added to the quaintly austere feel in the main room of the center. They were not artist’s chairs at all, but rather accompaniments to the arts… nameless roadies–working behind the scenes–for a traveling rock band, waiting in plastic limbo for someone important to show up. Dented and worn, the chairs bore the scrapes of a thousand hands, spills, run-ins and weights. Some looked nearly pristine while others had apparently endured a quasi-violent past.
The volunteer informed me—as he carefully constructed his rows—that these chairs had been donated to the arts center by a local high school. His grateful expression and earnest demeanor lent the chairs a calm nobility I’d not detected earlier. Precisely did the old man set them out and straighten and once satisfied with their placement, he stepped sideways—to the next row—to repeat the process.

Chilly fall air drifted in through the open glass doors, along with the sound of passing cars. Off the main room a teacher’s muffled voice could be heard, instructing a group of budding young artists on the importance of hue and color blending. I watched the white-haired volunteer tilt his head a little towards the sound. Certainly, he’d heard the lessons many times before, but he still nodded to himself and smiled as he set out a colorful flyer on the seat of each plastic chair.

A single wooden easel stood on the stage, facing the chairs. Its paint spattered front and turned spindles stood in sharp contrast to the modern plastic and chromed legs of the audience. Despite their worn appearance, a silent chuckle seemed to rise into the air above the chairs, a collective mocking sigh at the easel’s expense. It seemed to bear the implied scorn well, however. Standing as elegantly as its rigid legs would permit, the easel reveled in how the overhead lights glinted off the green enameled paint flecks gracing its left side… like so many shined medals on a general’s coat.

The lines of chairs sat in their silent rows amid the paintings, sculptures & whispering students, relaxing back into their molded routine. Artists began arriving, a few minutes ahead of their monthly meeting–each greeting the white-haired volunteer by name–holding portfolios and gabbing about the upcoming art gala. The volunteer answered their greetings with a nod, stooping down to nudge an end chair back into line. One artist teetered on unsteady shoes by the first row, letting her string bag of oranges drop into the nearest chair.

If the other seats could have turned to look, they would have.

By Any Other Name…

Writer StalledFiguring out the names of one’s character or one’s book makes most writers feel–at one point or another–more than a little stalled out… for lack of a better phrase.

Don’t worry about the name of your character,” one of my English teachers would say, whilst striding down an aisle of desks, hands clasped behind her back. “Call him John Smith or Buffo Neilsen… but just get the story written. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…”

I spent the rest of the allotted “brainstorming” time that day wondering how sweet a rose would smell if its name was “cactus”… or “dunghill.” It just didn’t sound right, I thought. Shortly thereafter I realized the inherent importance of hitting upon the right name… the sound.

Most folks agree that sounds at least ‘helps’ with defining who we are. Music moves the human soul, eases the inward desire to speak, hear and be heard. Poets sometimes agonize over a single syllable in their prose, illustrating another aspect of sound: its ability to instantly express the differences between one human and the next. Thus, a hearing/speaking fiction writer feels at a loss if said figure in their head has no name bestowed upon them… their very own audible, spoken, readable identifier.

Certainly one can–conceivably–write about _________ (heroine of the book) day after day with a measure of success. It is possible. However, many writers feel as I do, that a person’s name helps shape their character and often can even influence one’s decisions. A character named Cecile, for instance, may turn out very different than an identical-looking one called Griselda, or worse…

Most kindergarten-age children are well aware that one’s name can be a source of endless amusement for their fellow schoolyard inhabitants and can alter their experience of education altogether. A pretty girl named Snot—for example–would likely find very little solace in her looks; she’d be railed upon—unfairly–by her peers, never allowed to be at ease, and probably grow to either hate her fellow human—including the strange people that named her–or grow more mired in misery and depression until she reached the legal age to change it to something less “gross.” Snickers would invariably ensue each time poor Snot appeared, and would maybe keep her from focusing on her studies provoking an incorrect diagnosis of “ADD” or “dyslexic,” leading to even more ridicule.

The names of your book characters notwithstanding, coming up with the piece’s title has caused many a writer grief and elation… often within the same minute. Certainly the piece can be written without it, but you are not alone if you’ve agonized over the title of your book much the same way as a poet has walked in circles–gripping their leaking pen–searching for that exact word that pinpoints the emotion they feel, barking at anyone that dares interrupt with such petty matters as food or water. If the title is not “right”–if it fits not the piece for which it is intended–many writers feel they cannot continue until it is figured out, to the utter amusement of their non-writing compatriots.

Come on… it’s just a title,” a relative/friend/co-worker might say. “What’s the big deal?” The inquirer is–more often than not—mystified by the cold glare directed their way upon uttering the the above sentence, or something like it, which is the milder of the possible replies in a writer’s arsenal (just behind the sharp retort of “Asking that question merely proves your inability to comprehend the answer.”) {writer stalks off stage left}

Would you want to smell a dunghill? No. But a rose… why, yes, you probably would. Maybe you wouldn’t read a book called The Vertically-Challenged Initially Mediocre Fictional Being… but you might just read The Hobbit. Names and titles do matter; perhaps not as much as plot, nor the proper use and placement of adjectives–and their verb counterparts–but labels are pivotal to a writer’s human characters, as well as the title of the piece they have worked so very hard on.

So, bear in mind these rather biased notions from a fiction writer before giving the prose-creator you know a hard time as they stand out on the roof of their apartment building in the rain, grimacing at the parapet wall–mumbling to themselves—inwardly weighing “Drakyr” verses “Gnylor” as the label by which the epic villain in his mind is known and feared. Yelling out “just pick one already” may not deprive the literary realm of a proper foe, but it just might induce the rather damp and irritated writer to turn around and consider your name–not as the strong hero–nor the feared villain, but for the deformed and hated minion everyone kicks to make themselves feel better…

L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books

Indie Writer & The App

Way back in March of 2012, Forbes columnist Alex Knapp wrote an article called “Are Apps the Future of Book Publishing?” in which he voiced marked enthusiasm for ground-breaking eBook apps. 80,000+ hits on said article notwithstanding, there isn’t much being penned these days about throngs of authors diving into the app fray.

One may very well still ask: “will apps indeed take over the ePub/Mobi mainstays of individual eBook titles?” Many an author on my considerable list of contacts wonders if the effort/expense of making their titles into apps is even worth it.

Take, for instance the most popular apps downloaded on the iPhone, free or otherwise. According to several websites I visited (Googling “most downloaded apps 2013”) a few apps that find free eBook titles for you were among the top ten. There are apps that categorize eBooks, read eBooks and promote eBooks, but I had a hard time locating eBooks-turned-into-apps on any general popularity list. I did, however, notice a blurring of the already-thin line between “enhanced” eBook ePubs and eBook apps, a trend that seems to be gaining strength among younger consumers.

A handful of traditional publishers have branched out into creating apps from books, from re-doing classic novels–with manuscript notes and author interviews–to redefining novels entirely by including story-board like images, interactive pages and audio along with the prose. Authors with Amazon already have a kind-of, sort-of app for their titles via the Kindle-for-PC app, Kindle-for-iPad app and others.

As an indie author, I love the idea of making each book title into an app. Such individualization—to me–really helps focus on the feel and tone I envisioned for each book when writing it. Just being able to include a soundtrack, font and old-school decorative printing flourishes makes my mind whirl with ideas, and such is the case for many of my fellow authors. Feedback excitement for branching out into Novel Apps is almost palpable when I send ’round my queries on the subject, but the tangible evidence for such work being done is sadly lacking.

I’d love to get my ebooks into apps!” a fellow writer wrote back. “Tell us how that goes!”

Another wrote: “I’ve heard of companies that can do it for you—for a truckload of casheroo. Let me know if you find a good DIY app maker…”

Truckload of “casheroo” indeed…

I found several dozen companies that can take my eBooks and make them into apps for me at a hefty price. The cheapest reputable company I found was approx $350 per title (extras like interactivity aside) and only if I did ten titles. That’s approximately $4K out of pocket–which might be nothing to a publishing house–but is actually quite a bit of coin for a couple of virtually-unknown indie writers using free-yet-time-consuming services like WordPress & Twitter to market themselves.

That being said, what are some options for cash-poor, plot-rich indie writers that want to leap into app-making?

To start, you’ll need to take stock of your current sales and download data, free and paid alike. A platform I’ve found lately—that does just that—is App Annie. I was able to link my Amazon Kindle storefront and Kindle novels to this platform and get a one-glance graph by title and month to help me determine the most popular novels and the most active weeks. And…. it’s free. (Huzzah!)

Once you’ve soaked in the myriad data you can determine which titles should be apps and which you can feasibly ignore ’til later.

DIY app-making is an industry still in its infancy. Platforms without strings are limited–to say the least–and sparsely populated. It seems—to the average indie writer—that this void in self-service is some kind of publishing house-led conspiracy… but there are good reasons why app-makers charge so much. The work is time-consuming and exacting. Folks that purchase apps want a svelte, professional product thus—as in DIY eBook producing—scathing “bad” formatting reviews appear like great gobs of guano let loose by the Seasgulls of Snark wheeling overhead, cackling to themselves as writers run for cover.

But, hope is not lost. Meandering around the net–looking for an answer to my app problem–I thought I discovered a “bridge” solution, for lack of better word. ePub Bud touts to be a free DIY platform for writers to create ePubs of their work, and convert it into various forms… not unlike Calibre, but–apparently–a little less complicated. The ePubs created with this system should resemble apps and–when formatted “correctly”–behave like apps on tablets. Albeit bare-bones in appearance, and only offering a slender array of fonts, ePub Bud seems to give indie writers a DIY solution to their “do we make an app” problem . Books are compiled in chapters. Drawbacks include a loss of formatting, which must be redone once each chapter is copied and pasted. I was however, able to keep my pretty little divider image at the end of each chapter, something that touched my old-school-publishing heart. Whether due to my being a novice at app creation, or the rudimentary nature of the platform, I was not really able to make anything that was better than the ePubs I generate with Calibre.

After tinkering around with Epub Bud for two weeks—working on one title—I stumbled across a generous loophole in the Adobe InDesign system.

Like most indie writers/designers I’ve often looked wistfully at Adobe products, dreaming of the day I could afford such gorgeously professional software. Someone brilliant at Adobe figured out that–while they make a lot of coin on the few folks that can afford their software–they were missing out on a greater pool of consumers willing to pay a monthly fee for cloud access to the Creative Suite. Students, high school or college, can get fairly cheap access to a lovely modern invention called Creative Cloud, for a mere $19.99 per month. My oldest daughter is a junior in high school and interested in a career she can tele-commute to. I suggested learning InDesign, bought her a Student pass to CC and an account with Lynda.com and promptly hired her to do an eBook layout . Under the periodically curious eye of her mother, she began converting one of our ePubs into an much-better enhanced ePub within in a matter of days, with embedded fonts, anchored images and the correct formatting for a polished eBook. The main issue was the ePub format itself; the chapters flow together,thus—as in Epub Bud—one is required to make separate documents for each chapter. InDesign further requires separate documents for covers, meta data, TOC (Table of Contents), copyright info and image files. I will say that the Lynda video course on using InDesign to make an ePub (while slightly outdated) still proved detailed and extremely helpful.

Apps however are a different animal. The Folio Producer part of Creative Cloud proved challenging, even for the combo of my savvy teen’s mind and my old-school-eBook mentality. After a week of tinkering and watching a library of you-tube how to videos, we got a workable app, with suave user-interface, a tasteful number of interactive photos and charming publishing embellishments, but the layout issues gave us pause. Before apps can be created on this system, they must be “approved” by the Adobe Folio Producer platform. Now, I agree with this , as no company would want inferior/ non-workable apps floating around with their name attached to it. The only frustrating part is the denial message does not tell which document(s) have the issues, thus requiring a hunt & peck type strategy which eats up a considerable amount of time.

But, Time—that capricious ally–is what I have to spend. When said issues are resolved, I will post the completed project links up for perusal.

~ L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books

Update: Since posting this article, a flurry of ensuing remarks have shown up in various parts of The Web, more against the idea of eBooks apps than those in the “pro” category. The quips and outright request of readers especially caught my attention, decrying the use or need for eBooks apps. An issue we’d not even considered came up as foremost in the arguments for giving up our app quest: storage space. Limited device storage space makes it a precious commodity, one that app designers would do well to consider. We have and after a series of grave discussion have put our eBook app plans into the “it was a good idea, but…” box on a dusty shelf in the closet.

The Writing Couch

Where do you write?

For me, it is an antique wooden couch that once belonged to my great-uncle. I do not know exactly when it was made but taking in all the previous owners, it must be well over ninety years ago. In spite of its age it is very comfortable for sitting and napping alike… which a couch should be, if it possibly can.

It was given to my husband and I just after we arrived back from our honeymoon. Upon walking through the door of our apartment, it was sitting there with all our wedding gifts piled on top. Having no couch of our own, we were delighted with the unexpected surprise. The cushions, being well-used and rather garish in material, were covered over with a fluffy spare feather-bed and a linen duvet. Though it is most favored by myself, my man finds himself napping on it once in awhile. If any in the family is feeling ill they snuggle into it’s fluffy depths for comfort.

Besides it’s appeal as a pleasant piece of furniture, this couch is an unusual source of creative inspiration. This is no common bit of wood and cloth in my living room but a stalwart sailor, both experienced and sage. My great uncle was a sailing enthusiast and lived in Hawaii and Australia, sometimes simultaneously. The open sea was–to him–more home than any place else, especially in his latter years. He was so partial to this particular couch that he maneuvered it into the hull of his 40-foot yacht and took it with him each time he embarked. Couch abroad, he stopped at many of the ports most folks only read about or watch on the Travel channel.

Sailing along with the sunburnt white-haired adventurer, this couch of mine has been around the globe four times in all. Often my great uncle would wrestle it up onto the deck under the shade of a looped length of sail just so he could nap in comfort. Thus the couch sat in the air of many exotic places, soaking in salt and spices, fresh breezes and humid, fragrant zephyrs.

I was understandably pleased to get this piece of furniture from my cousins (now grown with couches of their own) and have cared for it well; it has graced the living room of every apartment we’ve lived in as well as our current home. My children babbled and played on it as babies, used it for stability as they toddled around on uncertain legs and jumped off it as they grew older. Now we crowd onto it to watch a documentary or use it as a ‘parliament bench’ when having our family meetings.

During the day, once all my work is mostly done (snickering at “done”) I take up my trusty laptop and sink into the deep depths of the couch with a sigh. Just sitting on it makes one reflect upon the scenes it has witnessed; the places I hear of or read about are all the more real knowing the couch has actually been there. I do not know why or how to explain it but when I am seated upon this particular couch, reclined back and typing away, ideas flow far better and with more literary flavor than in any other place I have ever written.

A couch that inspires is rare indeed and it shall be in our family a good, long while. Whichever of our children whom marries and leaves our home first will most likely get the couch, if I can be persuaded to part with it.

Until then, back to typing…

L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books

The Woman with the Amber Bracelet

woman with the amber bracelets past‘Tis true that potential story characters can come at you anywhere, anytime.

I’ve found a number of walk-on personas to fill the lighter corners of many a page via mere observation, whether by standing in line at the bank, driving or browsing the languid aisles of a bookstore. Once in a great while–however–a writer comes across a personality who needs no words of introduction. Standing by a tall “mingling” table–at one of my husband’s company events recently–I saw just such a character… The Woman with the Amber Bracelet.

Her gray shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a shabby-chic bun,with a few wispy escapees curling by her ears. In contrast to the fine stones at her wrist a bulky, bauble’d necklace hung around her neck; it lay rather ostentatiously upon the beige linen jacket adorning her shoulders. Her presence seemed to shout “artist” and, yet, my eye drifted back to her bracelet. The hand-burnished pieces of amber filtered the hanging lights overhead into golden points on the tablecloth that moved as she raised or lowered her wineglass.

The bracelet’s presence intrigued me. It did not seem to fit the wrist it was on, nor did it match her outfit. The antique, worked metals–holding the stones–spoke of a far older time than the gray-haired artist would have known. Perhaps it was a gift from an elegant loved one a long time ago, a beloved grandmother or great-aunt. That made more sense; the bracelet seemed chosen–not for fashion or anti-fashion–but as a tether to the past. More so a piece of tangible nostalgia than a badge to be shown off, as if the wearer hoped some of the bracelet’s experiences might eventually impart themselves.

It’s owner did not speak, but watched everyone within visible range of her table. Her expression interested me almost as much as the bracelet. She seemed bored, irritated and strangely content all at once, suggesting several lines of simultaneous thought. Despite one—or all—of these assumptions of mine, her face softened as her husband approached; he bore two, tiny white plates of hors d’oeuvres. The hand bearing the bracelet lifted to lightly touch the back of his, a wordless gesture of fondness, one that would move a stone statue to smile.

Both of their hands looked spotted with the kisses of a thousand sunny days. I imagined them on the side of a hill–overlooking some distant valley–the husband squinting through the viewfinder of a camera as it sat on the spindly legs of a tripod. She’d be nearby, I thought, perched cross-legged on the rounded top of a low boulder—her sketchpad out—with the end of a lead-less pencil flicking back and forth over the edge of a breeze-blown page.

I wondered how many such scenes the amber bracelet had witnessed. It lay against the artist’s wrist, heavy with its well of stories.

~ L. R. Styles

Belator Books