Today’s Featured Author – Charles O’Donnell

Author Charles O’Donnell visits my blog today promoting his novel, Shredded: A Dystopian Novel, which came out earlier this year.

Interview

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Last year I retired to write full-time after thirty-five years in engineering and manufacturing—three and a half decades during which almost all of my writing output consisted of technical standards and email. While my career did require a certain facility with language, neither plot nor character development earned me any praise. Not a total loss, though—dealing with people from diverse cultures in all manner of situations gave me insight into human nature, which I try to bring to my writing. And the time I spent in faraway locations such as China and Italy inspired the settings for The Girlfriend Experience and Moment of Conception.

What or who inspired you to start writing?

My list of inspiring writers is long! I tend toward more literary works—Inferno, the one by Dante, not the one by Dan Brown, was a favorite when I was a teen, as were The Odyssey and Moby Dick; later A Clockwork Orange and more recently Freedom and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen made an impression. But it wasn’t until I started reading Dan Brown, John Grisham, Ken Follett and others that I thought I could write a book of my own, perhaps a story as exciting as a Dan Brown thriller if not as literary as Jonathan Franzen. When I got the idea for The Girlfriend Experience about eight years ago, I wrote the first chapter and I was hooked.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

If you had asked me when I was four years old what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have said “author,” although at that age I pronounced it “Arthur.” Through grade school, middle school and high school I wrote stories, both for school and for myself, and then I took forty years off to earn a living. I never actually considered myself a “writer” until one day, when attending a writing workshop at a local college, I asked the workshop leader what advice he would give to a non-writer who wants to write. He said, “Well, first, if you’re writing, then you’re a writer.” On that day, I awarded myself the title of “writer” retroactively to age four.

How much of yourself, your personality or your experiences, is in your books?

As much as possible! A writing instructor once told me “I write to erase myself in the creative act.” For me, that means allowing myself, sometimes forcing myself, to explore every aspect of every situation in my novels, whether or not the result of that exploration makes it into the final draft. Since the author reveals to the reader what he or she thinks about the world, the act of writing forces the author to actually think about the world, often with surprising results. I think that’s what makes writing such an intensely personal experience. The hazard, of course, is that the author, by injecting his or her viewpoint into the story, may intrude on the reader’s experience, rather than leaving the reader alone with the narrative. Avoiding that intrusion is one aspect of writing that I find most challenging—one wrong word, one ham-handed exposition, one preachy moment, and the spell is broken.

Please tell us about your current release.

Shredded: A Dystopian Novel went live in April, 2017. This is my first full-length sci-fi novel, set in the not-too-distant future, a time when almost all human activity takes place in Virtual Reality and privacy is nonexistent. It’s the story of Grace, a recovering drug and sex addict who’s managed to stay clean for four years since being shocked straight, having lost custody of her son Dylan to her sister Donna. She’s determined to get herself respectable, to win Dylan’s respect, but also to regain control over her life, never again to become a slave to her addictions.

One day Grace discovers that her life data—words, images, and events recorded indelibly in the Worldstream—have been woven into a lifestream, a full-immersion VR experience. It goes viral, with millions of perverted stream riders are getting their thrills reliving Grace’s sordid past. The thought of her life being invaded by strangers offends her need to be in control, but worse than that, Grace discovers that Dylan is experimenting with riding lifestreams, and is only days away from stumbling onto the past that Grace has so carefully kept from him.

Grace finds a shredder, an expert in the ways of the Worldstream, to remove her lifestream, deleting every last bit of her life data since the day she was born. Her life will be hers again, but she’ll be outside of the Worldstream, a non-person, cut off from Dylan and everyone else she cares about—and she can never go back.

What inspired you to write this book?

Technological and social trends seem to be toward a society in which we interact less and less with one another in person, while paradoxically sharing more and more intimate details of our lives with utter strangers. At the same time, with the rapid development of augmented and virtual reality, we may be only years away from virtual experiences that are indistinguishable from real life. Might we see a future, not too far off, in which the virtual world is the venue not only for leisure, but also for work and social interaction? And in such a world, how would we protect our privacy, when all of our actions, words, perhaps even our thoughts, enter the virtual reality stream? While I’m excited about the possibilities, I fear the side effects. Shredded is my exploration of the promise as well as the hazards of these trends, which seem unstoppable.

Which of your characters is your favorite? Do you dislike any of them?

I really enjoyed writing Grace—generally speaking, I enjoy writing female characters more than male characters. In The Girlfriend Experience, it was Gina, the call girl who gets tangled up in a web of espionage; in Moment of Conception, it was Ronni, the brilliant and beautiful political operative. Grace is the first female lead character in any of my books, and I’m happy with how she came out—she’s strong, complex, and likeable. All that said, if I had to pick a favorite in Shredded, it would be Raúl, the cynical Worldstream master. I put a lot of myself into him.

The only characters I dislike are the ones that I’ve written as unlikeable. Andrew, Donna, and Joan from Shredded fit that description. But I don’t dislike all my unlikeable characters!

Can you tell us a little about the black moment in your book?

In chapter 35, “Empathy Setting,” Grace has reached an impasse in her attempts to shred her life. Seemingly out of options, Grace makes arrangements for the distribution of her belongings after her death, and records a final message to Dylan. Climbing to the roof of her building, she approaches the edge, contemplating her own destruction. Grace’s tortured conversation with herself, imagining the impact that her death will have on Dylan, is a portrait of a woman determined to master her own fate, who nevertheless is at the end of her rope.

If this book is part of a series, what is the next book? Any details you can share?

Shredded is the first book of a planned three-book series. Shredded tells Grace’s story, from the time she discovers that her life has been hacked to the time she resolves that crisis. The second book, with the working title of Shade, continues Grace’s story as she navigates through the secret world of the Shade, outlaws who have cut themselves off from the connected world. In the third book of the series, we can expect Grace to reassert herself in the connected world to champion the cause of personal liberty and the right of individuals to choose what to share and what to keep private.

Do you have an all time favorite book?

Just based on the number of times I’ve read it, that would have to be A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I read it for the first time when I was nineteen, and I read it again for the fourth time last September. But the book that made the deepest impression on me was Moby Dick. I’m still not sure why, other than the brilliant writing and visceral imagery, and I’ve only read it once, but when asked to name my favorite books, Moby Dick is always at the top of the list.

What book are you reading right now?

I’m working my way through the canon of virtual-reality-themed fiction, starting with Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, both of which I enjoyed but found a little too tech-heavy. I’m reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer, in the same genre but distinctly more literary than either Ready Player One or Snow Crash.

Tell us a random fact about you that we never would have guessed.

I’m the eighth child from a family of fifteen. Whenever I mention that fact, the reaction is astonishment followed by a long and predictable list of questions. I have them printed out, with answers, citations, and cross-references, on a handy laminated sheet.

Book Blurb

How do I erase my existence from the mind of God?

Grace, a civil servant with a sordid past, wakes up one morning to find that she’s a viral sensation: her life has been hacked, woven into a lifestream, a full-immersion, 3-D, virtual reality experience. Knowing that she’s powerless to keep thrill-seeking stream riders from reliving her life, fearing that her teenage son, Dylan, might stumble upon her explicit lifestream, Grace finds a shredder, an expert in the ways of the Worldstream, the infinitely detailed record of every event, person, and thing. He’ll erase her lifestream and all of her data since the day she was born. Her life will be hers again, but she’ll be outside of the Worldstream–and she can never go back.

About the Author

Charles O’Donnell writes thrillers with high-tech themes in international and futuristic settings. His works include The Girlfriend Experience, an espionage thriller and the first book in the Matt Bugatti series; Moment of Conception (Matt Bugatti #2), a political and medical thriller; and Shredded: A Dystopian Novel, a cautionary tale about the potential for technology to either augment reality or to replace it entirely, and about the erosion of privacy in a world in which everything is shared online, and nobody reads the terms and conditions. 

Charles recently retired from a career of thirty-five years in engineering and manufacturing to write full-time, drawing on his years of experience leading technology teams in many countries on three continents to create compelling settings in faraway lands.

Charles lives with Helen, his wife and life partner in Westerville, Ohio.

You can find out more about Charles on his website.

You can purchase Shredded on Amazon.

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The importance of a story arc

This post is the ninth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Before we begin writing, I wanted to discuss your story arc. Knowing and understating the nature of this arc can help you ensure that your story stays on course or let you know if the story is getting away from you.

A story arc covers the beginning, middle and end of your story. Characters also have arcs – typically covering internal growth or change. If your story is about just one main character, then your story arc and your character arc could be the same. But if you have a large cast of characters, each character will have their own arc. Some may be ending their own arc while others are just beginning. Your story arc will tie or weave these arcs together.

Beginning/Establish Routine – This is where the reader is introduced to the characters, and we get a taste of what happens in their everyday life.

Example – Think of Cinderella sweeping the ashes or Harry Potter living with the Dursley’s.

Note: Last week, I mentioned starting your novel with a gripping scene that grabs the readers’ attention. But most of the time this gripping scene is probably not what is drawing your character to leave their “normal” life to partake in the adventure. An example of this type of start would be in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. While we meet Indy during an exciting scene, we are then returned to his life as a professor.

Trigger/Inciting Incident – Something beyond the protagonist’s control triggers the spark of the story causing the protagonist to act. This incident or trigger will require your character to make a choice and truly begins the story.

Example – For Cinderella, it is the appearance of the fairy godmother. For Harry, it is the appearance of a mysterious letter which leads to him finding out he is a wizard.

In a romance, the inciting incident is probably where the two romantic leads meet each other for the first time. In a mystery, it may be when the first dead body is found.

No matter what the event is, this is what gets the story rolling. It introduces an inequity or problem into the character’s life. The protagonist will seek the solution. The Antagonist seeks to prevent it. But without this event, nothing changes. If Harry hadn’t received the letter from Hogwarts he would have continued to live under the stairs – something very unexciting and certainly not worth a seven-book series.

Rising Action/Conflict – The trigger results in a quest which often has obstacles, complications, conflict and trouble for the protagonist.

Example – Cinderella must endure the antics of her stepmother and stepsisters after her happy time at the ball. Harry stumbles through learning to be a wizard while finding clues about what the Dark Lord wants.

Crisis/Critical Choice – Along the way, there should be incidents of crisis followed by brief breaks. Often the protagonist must make a crucial decision. This is where we find out what type of person the character truly is. At the critical choice, the protagonist must decide to take a particular path.

Example – Cinderella decides to fight her Stepmother for her right to try on the glass slipper. Harry decides to stop Professor Quirrell from stealing the stone.

Climax – This is the highest point of tension in your story and comes from whatever choice your protagonist made during the critical choice. It doesn’t have to be a huge battle between good and evil. It can be something as simple as an important decision being made.

Example – For Cinderella, it is the point where she attempts to escape her locked bedroom as her stepsisters try on the glass slipper. In Harry’s instance, it is his battle with Professor Quirrell.

Falling Action – This is where the consequences of the critical choice and climax play out. It should show the changed status of your characters – especially the protagonist. The changes must make sense with how the story unfolds. The outcome should be probable as nothing should happen for no reason.

Example – Cinderella meets up with her prince and gets married. And for Harry, it is his time in the hospital where Professor Dumbledore divulges the meanings behind the recent events.

Resolution – This is where the story wraps up. Your characters return to their lives but now are perhaps wiser or changed.

Example – We see Cinderella and her prince driving off in the carriage, presumably to live happily ever after. Harry gets back on the train to return to the Dursley’s but this time knowing that he will return to Hogwarts for another year of school.

If you search the Internet, you can find more complex diagrams of the story arc. Some use different terms or add more steps, but these are the basics of a story arc. Knowing these steps of the arc can help you in planning your story or at least making sure you stay on track.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

Still trying to limit my kids’ extra curricular activities

When my kids first started school, my goal was to not have them over scheduled with activities. In fact in January 2013, I wrote a post about keeping their activities to one extra-curricular activity per child.

Well, now that they are older (Lexie is 9 and Jase is 12), it has proven to be too hard to keep that one activity goal.

Jase receiving his second degree red belt in May 2017.

It all started last year when Jase was in fifth grade. He wanted to return to soccer, but he was still taking karate (which he began in kindergarten). Ok, I thought. Two activities were fine. Then during the first month of school, the middle school orchestra came to perform as a method of recruiting members. He wanted to do strings which was free (except for the violin rental.) So he ended up with three activities.

At that time, Lexie just had one – gymnastics.

A new school year has begun, and it is time to select activities for this school year. I don’t dictate what activities they join but the only stipulation is that once they start something, they must continue through that season/session. If after that they don’t want to continue, then they are free to stop and pick a new activity.

Lexie’s rendition of the Pokemon – Fennekin.

Lexie decided in August that gymnastics was not her passion and wanted to stop. She had been doing it for a year and a half. She loves art so I signed her up for an after-school art class that meets once a week for 12 weeks.

She also likes to sing so she will also be joining choir. This school group meets twice a week before school. She will have one performance during the holidays and a field trip to sing at another location – usually a nursing home.

Jase right now has two activities. He is still doing karate. He is currently a second degree red belt. He is also in the orchestra. Now orchestra is a class at his middle school, but I am also counting it as an extra-curricular activity as they will sometimes have after school practice, and they do have performances and competitions throughout the year.

While he currently has two activities and I would be happy with him limiting his extracurricular activities to these, I am still encouraging him to find a club at the middle school he might want to join. I think joining a club will be a great way to make friends at his new school. But if he doesn’t find one that interests him that is fine too.

As it is, I think two activists a piece are just fine for them. I like keeping them busy, but I don’t think kids need every minute of their day scheduled. They need time for homework, and of course they need down time where they can just have fun and enjoy their childhood.

Today’s Featured Author – Terrell Williams

Today, I welcome author Terrell Williams to my blog. He is on a virtual book tour promoting his book But My Soul is Black.

8 Things

Tell us 8 things about the characters in your book.

1) Bobby is an Anglo who finds out more about himself than he ever imagined when he gets an opportunity to become familiar with another culture and has to come face to face with physical confrontations if he stands up for what he believes.

2) Jimbo for the first time feels the pain of not ultimately being on the winning side in a quest for the woman he truly loves.  He learns the hard way that being vain is not a virtue.

3) Karen, the object of pursuit of both Jimbo and Bobby learns the difficulty associated with discerning what constitutes love vs. infatuation, and whether physical attraction is as important as someone who shows true care and concern.

4) Uncle Fred is the big boss who has high expectations of those he employs and who he cares about, almost to a fault.

5) Grandma knows her grandson Jimbo better than anyone, and he really needs her sometimes tough love yet compassionate guidance when he encounters problems of the heart that he does not know how to handle himself.

6) Jimbo is a proud young man with flaws, but he takes care of his business for Uncle Fred, which is why he was made foreman over the job.

7) Everyone needs a “Helen”.  A true friend who will tell you the truth, regardless of whether you like it or not.  Helen, Karen’s best friend, was just that type of person.

8) Karen is an amazing lady, with beauty, education, emotional strength yet compassion.

Book Blurb

Bobby has high hopes for his new life in Detroit, and he will not, under any circumstances, blow his chances by messing up a prime job opportunity at his uncle’s construction company. But his first meeting with his mentor, African American foreman Jimbo, turns out even worse than expected when it becomes apparent that Bobby is learning the ropes to become Jimbo’s boss.

As Bobby tries to navigate Jimbo’s understandable resentment, he must also wrestle with the misperceptions of Black culture that his Caucasian family has passed on to him. Eventually, the two men become friends as Jimbo recognizes that Bobby doesn’t hold the prejudices of his uncle.

But just as things start to smooth out, Jimbo introduces Bobby to the kind, clever, and stunning Karen—Jimbo’s favorite woman to string along. Confused by his strong feelings for this intriguing woman and frustrated with Jimbo’s flippant treatment of her, Bobby struggles with whether to pursue Karen…at the cost of ending his newfound friendship with Jimbo and sabotaging his future.

Taking a candid look at interracial romance and the human experience, …But My Soul is Black reveals the cultural misperceptions that harm us—and the love that heals us.

About the Author

Terrell Williams began life as the 2nd eldest son of 9 children (4 girls and 5 boys) and was reared in less than affluent circumstances. The second in his immediate family to graduate from college, he went on to marry a wonderful woman, and who eventually became the proud parents of 4 children (3 girls and 1 son who is also his namesake).

Mr. Williams enjoys reading and writing poetry, and he has written several plays that have been performed and were well received in Texas. The idea for his debut novel, But my Soul Is Black, lay dormant for many years until Mr. Williams finally finished the novel upon his retirement, fulfilling his dream of becoming a published author. His romantic tale tackles controversial topics such as interracial relationships, generational differences of conceptual thinking about life and love. This novel seeks to remind the readers of the interconnectedness we share as humans, as well as showing that truly, love transcends all!

You can find out more about Terrell’s book tour on Facebook.

You can purchase But My Soul is Black on Amazon.

Writing a novel – To Outline or Not to Outline

This post is the eighth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

You have developed believable, complex characters. You have selected your setting or built your world. And you have a plot idea riddled with conflict. Now it is time to write or is it? Nope. There is potentially more planning to do.

Some people like to sit down and just begin writing. They may have no clue where to begin and they want to start writing and see where the characters lead them. Or perhaps they start with a vague idea but either way, this method (often referred to as “pantser” since they are flying by the seat of their pants) can lead to more re-writing in the end as many of the scenes that don’t advance the story are deleted or re-written.

And then on the other end of the spectrum there are the real planners. These are the ones writing detailed outlines of where the story goes, sometimes even outlining each individual chapter. Actually, these “plotters” come in all different levels, and some may decide a one-page synopsis is enough.

There are, of course, numerous benefits for those who outline their novels.

1.) You create a well-developed plot/storyline

2.) You are never at a loss about what to write next.

3.) You can find problems with your plot or characters sooner (and correct them)

4.) Less rewriting

So, you decide you want to outline your novel before you write. How do you go about doing that?

Outlining methods

Snowflake method (aka Expanding Outline) – Here you start with a basic premise. (I found this example on another website.)

Jack and Jill get injured while climbing a hill trying to get water.

Then you expand on it.

Jack, the mayor’s son, is sent to fetch water. Jill comes with him. They get injured while trying to climb the hill where the well is located.

Then you expand on it some more.

Jack, who is the mayor’s son, is sent to fetch water for the town. His girlfriend Jill comes with him. At the top of the hill, where the well is located, the two are attacked. They attempt to escape but trip and fall down the hill. They are both injured.

You continue this process until every part of the story has the level of detail you want. This method can be very labor intensive. You can find out more about the method here.

Pure Summary/Narrative – On this method you write the story from beginning to end but in summary form. There are no descriptions or dialogues. You can pretty much do this one by bullet point, or you can just write it out almost as a synopsis.

  • Susan lives in the jungle.
  • She is struggling to survive with very few supplies.
  • Susan receives an unexpected visit from her daughter.
  • Susan decides to leave the jungle and live with her daughter in the city.

Headlight (or Flashlight) Outline – With this method, you plan out a few scenes or chapters. You plan just enough to get you writing. Once you have written that and reread it to see if you like where your story is going, then you do the next few chapters.

I write using this method. I find that it gives me some structure but also lets my characters dictate where the story is going. But I do have an end goal in mind – I just don’t have all the details planned in advanced.

Chapter by Chapter Breakdown – Some writers do a quick summary of what will happen in each chapter. Again, it can be almost like bullet points, or you can write even more as your guide.

These are really just a few of the methods, and as you can see some of the methods are very similar to others. Outlining had its benefits and if one of these methods doesn’t tickle your fancy, simple use Google and find other outlining methods that do.

And remember, if outlining a novel doesn’t work for you, don’t force it. There is nothing wrong with being a panster. There are many authors that plan and many who don’t. You just need to do what works for you. The most important thing is getting a comprehensive well written novel done.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot