Sunday, July 28, 2013

Of Mice and Men: A Free Preview of Smooth Operator

An Interview with Warren Baker
I met him at Norwood on a Tuesday night. I normally can’t get into a place like that on any night. It’s one of the few private clubs left in the city, and I’m not a member. I don’t have five thousand dollars to spend on a club membership, and even if I did, I don’t have the personal references to open up doors like that. Baker clearly had both of those resources. My name was on the list as his guest, so I went to the elevator quickly, before the frosty but polite hostess changed her mind about me and told the gigantic doorman to kick me out.
Norwood isn’t really the type of place you think of when someone says “club.” There is no disco ball or smoke machine. There is no massive sound system that will make your ears bleed if you stand too close. Norwood feels much more like the British clubs that the characters in an Oscar Wilde story were always flitting in and out of. When I got out of the elevator, I had to move around small clusters of European artists flirting with each other over wine. I roamed over ornate carpets that swallowed the conversations around me and passed under low chandeliers that cast more shadows than light, before I found him sitting alone.
He was nestled in a high-backed leather chair, cradling a neat glass of what looked like whiskey. He had both legs stuck out in front of him and crossed at the ankles. His dark wood cane rested at his elbow. He glanced out the window at the passing buses on Fourteenth Street as I approached. That’s when I knew he saw me come into the club. He probably saw me in the reflection of the glass as I entered the room. Warren Baker may have been relaxed, but he was still very much aware.
“You’re late,” he observed as I sat down in a chair opposite his.
“No, I’m not. You said meet you here at ten. Its nine fifty-five now. I’m early.”
“Early for the masses, late for a professional” Baker looked at me with a mischievous grin as he went for a sip of his drink. “You got here just in time to meet me, but you don’t know anything about this place or the surrounding area. You have no idea where the viable exits are, and if something goes sideways tonight, you will be very properly fucked.”
I shrugged. “True, but I’m not a professional spy. I’m a writer. All that tradecraft shit is your job, not mine.” A bright, cheery waitress with a practiced smile came to take my order, ignoring the empty chair opposite me.
Baker admired the girl’s shape as she sauntered away. “They say writers should write about what they know. How are you going to write about people like me if you don’t know anything about the way we think or how we live?”
“That’s why I’m here, isn’t it? You give me some insight into the shadows, and I’ll pay for the drinks. It seems like a pretty fair trade to me.”
Baker snorted as he knocked back the last of the whiskey. “I’m glad you think so. This stuff is seventy-five dollars a glass, and I’m going to need a few of them to tell a proper story.”
I felt my eyes roll in my head. “Then we better get started.” The waitress returned for a moment and then left me alone with my drink.
“Fine,” he said, sitting back in the leather chair as if he planned to be there for a while. “What do you want to know?”

“Why don’t we start with you explaining what the fuck you’re up to?”
The full version of Smooth Operator goes on sale August 7th in Kindle and paperback versions.

Amazon Prime members are eligible to download the book for free from August 7th to August 11th.

Until then,

Have fun.
Gamal Hennessy

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Judging a Book by Its Cover: The Mystery of Cover Design

I was very ambivalent about getting a cover for my new book. I know the cover has nothing to do with the quality of the writing, but I also know that a bad cover is a one way ticket to a very bad first impression. I wanted a cover that I would be proud of when I saw it on my shelf, but I couldn't afford to pay a small fortune for professional graphic design (See How Much Does It Cost to Publish a Book Anyway?). In the end, I tried two methods of creating a cover, but only one of them created the look I wanted at a price I could handle.

The Basics
The popular wisdom floating around about e-book cover design involve three concepts:
  • The cover, especially the title and the author's name, should be clearly understandable as a thumbnail, so potential buyers can see it in a list of books on Amazon, Smashwords or GoodReads.
  • The cover should catch the eye of the potential reader.
  • The cover should give the reader some clue as to the subject matter and tone of the book.
I thought. 'OK, what's so hard about that?' Then I dove in head first.

Worth a Thousand Words
Smooth Operator is a novel of crime and espionage that includes a lot of drinking, violence and sexual themes. I wanted the cover image to suggest all those qualities as well as project an overall sense of cool. Based on these ideas, I set out to look for an image for my cover. is my site of choice for pictures. It has a lot of amazing royalty-free images on its site for $20 or less, and you don't have to pay anything extra to use the image until you sell 499,999 copies. (That's not a problem, because if I ever sell that many copies, I will be happy to pay for an exclusive license, right after I buy my new condo.) It took a few hours and a couple cocktails worth of searching, but in the end I came up with this image.

The gun hints at the violence. The martini covers the alcohol consumption. The suit and the passport represent cool. There isn't an overly sexual about the image and it's not as dark as I would like, but until a publisher can pay for his own photo shoot, they have to go with the next best option. Armed with the image in medium sized resolution, I poured another drink and tried to make my cover.

Leave It to the Professionals
My best attempt to make a cover turned out like this:

Can it be seen as a thumbnail? Sure. Does it convey the right tone? I think so. The image handles most of that. Does it catch the eye of the potential reader? Probably not. If anything it might scream self-published novel, which is a death blow for some buyers (See Are Self-Published Books Inherently Inferior?). I wasn't completely happy with it, and other authors I respect stressed the need for a professional looking cover (special thanks to Lance Charnes for finally pushing me over the edge) so I set out in search of an affordable alternative.  

That's when I stumbled onto It appears that the world of graphic design is going through economic competition that is just as bad, if not worse than independent publishing. That is a win for independent publishers because artists that once might have charged hundreds of dollars to design a cover are now doing gigs for $5 per cover. It's a little more for a paperback cover or quick delivery, but no cover is more than $30-$40.

I chose Angie, one of the top rated designers, submitted my payment (you have to pay first, but it's only $5) and my request along with the mock up I did. The cover at the top of this essay is what I got back:

Is this better?  That is a subjective question based on your aesthetics. Does it scream self-published? I don't think so. Considering what I paid for it, I think it is money well spent. Of course, I can't exactly articulate why the second cover is better, but then I'm not a graphic designer. I can say that I plan to use this artist for A Taste of Honey and the three other novels I have planned between now and 2016. At this point, I feel the cover design is the second most successful marketing project I've done so far.

So what process do you use to design your covers? Do you think this process makes sense for what you're trying to do? Let me know in the comments and as always. ..

Have fun.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Matter of Perspective: Managing Emotional Points of View

My recent essays about my writing method* have looked at the process from 30,000 feet, and dealt with broad construction of the narrative. I'd like to switch gears for a moment and talk about going waist deep into the writing of each beat in a chapter from the perspective of the characters in the story.

Sources of Technique
As always, my method is not original, but it is adapted to my temperament. The ideas I present here have mostly been molded from Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, The Emotional Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, and of course, Story

In the Driver's Seat
I try to write in a manner that places the reader in the position of a character. Instead of acting as an omniscient narrator, I try to cut out the middleman to create a more visceral response.  The best way I've found so far to do this is to follow six steps while developing each chapter:
  1. Decide at the beginning of the chapter whose perspective currently drives the story. Normally it’s the protagonist, but an antagonist or supporting character can drive a chapter if it is part of a subplot.
  2. Determine their emotional state, based on their circumstances. Then decide what they are feeling inside, what they are projecting into the world, what they attempt to hide and what they attempt to project. 
  3. Determine the outside actions or situations that influence the protagonist and what reactions they get when they interact with the world.
  4. Determine what the protagonist can perceive from others (and from themselves) and how they interpret those perceptions, including their biases, mistakes and things they can’t know.
  5. Find out what the protagonist does based on this situation.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5 until the chapter is resolved

I’m currently working on A Taste of Honey, which will be my second novel. In one of the early chapters, the protagonist, Nikki, sits in a cafe waiting for her lover Manuel. She is grappling with several problems at once. First, this isn't a random affair. She wants to seduce Manuel in order to spy on his business. Second, he was impotent the night before when they first made love. Third, Manuel’s wife saw their infidelity. Finally, the wife didn't lash out at them. In fact, she didn't try to stop the sexual liaison at all. She simply watched. Based on this turn of events, Nikki juggles confusion, embarrassment, sexual frustration, lust, doubt and anxiety all at the same time.

The impact of all those emotions come into play when the wife, and not Manuel, sits down at the table for lunch. How is Nikki’s shock affected by her current state of mind? What does she feel? What shows on her face or in her body language? Can she control herself in that moment? What signals does she get from the woman across the table and how is her perception tainted by her own emotional state? How will all of this impact her reaction? Most importantly, what happens next?

The Balancing Act
The art of writing involves creating a narrative that a reader can follow intellectually and connect with emotionally. There are dozens of physical responses to each emotion.  There are infinite ways for a person to interpret or misinterpret what other people say or do. The trick is to discard everything that doesn't help tell a good story and keep everything that will let the reader feel themselves in your character’s lives. Put in too much and you get a hot mess. Include too little and you get a wooden cliché. Art sits on the razor's edge.

When Characters Write Story
As I write each chapter, Nikki dictates more and more of what happens. What she sees and what she believes impacts what she does, which in turn creates a reaction in the world that she has to deal with. And it's not only what's going on outside. In her own head and heart there is a natural struggle between what she thinks and what she feels, between what she tries to do and what she does. Writing through the filter of her emotional point of view not only puts the readers in her shoes, it gives me the ability to see the world through her eyes too. I find that this kind of writing is much more honest and natural than trying to write from the outside looking in.

What do you think? Does any of this make sense? Let me know your perspective.

Have fun.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A New Novel from Gamal Hennessy Called Smooth Operator Goes on Sale July 31st

He knows what you want…
Born into privilege, wounded by war, and skilled in the art of manipulation, Warren Baker works like a spider. He weaves plans and plots, drawing people into his web until they accomplish his goals without ever knowing he was involved.
In some cases, his influence is as delicate as a woman's smile. In others, he is a blunt instrument ruthlessly pursuing his goals. All the stories reveal insights into this complicated man and his mysterious quest for power.

Smooth Operator is ultimately about our desires, and how they define us. From ambition to passion, from blood lust to vengeance, our motivations do more than shape what we are willing to do; they reveal who we are as people. 
When you are faced with a critical life choice, what you are capable of?
The Kindle version of Smooth Operator will be FREE to Amazon Prime members beginning on July 31st, 2013. The sale price for the Kindle version is $2.99. The sale price for the paperback version is $4.99.
Everyone who reviews Smooth Operator on the Amazon Page is eligible for a FREE GIFT! Details are coming soon.
Have fun.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Building the Better Novel, Part Three: Plot Construction

I apologize for jumping between my essays on plot development (See Part 1: Foundation and Part 2: Framework) and independent publishing issues (See Finding an Editor and The Cost of Independent Publishing). In a perfect world,  I would write these as two distinct series and not mixed together. In the real world, I'm releasing one novel and plotting another while a third manuscript waits for editing. I write essays based on what I'm working on at the time, hence the bouncing from one subject to another. The world of an independent publisher isn't perfect,  but it is fun.

Before I got sidetracked, I broke down my plot development process into the foundation where the book is conceptualized and the framework where the broad outline of the book is laid out. The next step in my process is to add structure to the frame through the use of beats, chapters, and acts. By linking each one of these parts into the framework of the overall concept a plot can take shape.

The Beat
According to Robert McKee's Storya beat is an process of action and reaction. For example, a man and a woman are having a pleasant dinner when, he gets down on one knee and proposes marriage. The proposal is the action. Her response is the reaction.

Not all beats need to be that momentous or interpersonal. A woman who decides to hit the snooze button instead of getting out of bed. The alarm is the inanimate action and her snooze is the reaction. If a man washes his car and it starts to rain, it is an extrapersonal action reaction of cruel irony.

The Chapter
Existence is full of random beats, but writers who plot use the beats to move the story forward. A chapter is a series of beats that alters the conditions or situation of the characters. In our dinner chapter above, we have the action of the proposal and her reaction of saying yes or no. This sequence of events changes the situation of the characters and moves the story. She says yes and he experiences marriage. She says no and he faces rejection. She says maybe and he faces doubt. Any way you slice it, his situation changes and propels the story forward.

There one thing I have been taught about chapters is that the condition of the characters has to change on some level. In screenwriting I've heard this referred to as "turning the scene". If everything is the same for the character at the end of the chapter as it is in the beginning,  then the chapter does not move the story and is what's called non event that doesn't need to be in the story. For example, the shower that the man took before the proposal dinner and the ride he took to the restaurant don't move the story, so they are non events that can be skipped over. Putting in a non event kills the momentum and interest in the story in almost all cases.

Ideally, a chapter serves as a mini story with a beginning, a middle and an end. The characters are in one position at the start of the chapter. They move through beats and levels of conflict that are either internal,  interpersonal, extra personal or all three at once. The situation at the end of each chapter becomes the beginning of the next chapter. It is similar to episodic television,  where the overarching plot is broken down into smaller events that move toward the endgame. One of the reasons I started writing short stories before I tackled a novel was to get the feel of building a beginning middle and end in only a few pages (You can read some of my short fiction for here)

The Act
An act is a series of scenes that represent major milestones in a story. In the same way we discussed the beginning middle and end (See Framework), the acts can loosely represent this progression.

Story talks about absolute irreversible change between acts, where the level of conflict and the level of willpower and effort increases with each act, so that the protagonist can't go back to lesser effort or lesser actions in the pursuit of their desire. I don't know if this is true in all cases and genres, but I have adopted it for my use.

Most stories can be defined by the number of acts they have. A short story often has one. The novella has two. The novel has at least three. But some stories break this convention. Shakespeare's work often has five acts, Raiders of the Lost Ark has seven. You can have any number of acts that fit your work, but because of the beginning, middle, end concept, three is the norm for most novels.

How I Build a Plot
  • I layout my foundation and my framework in front of me to show where the acts are and where I'm going. 
  • Then I map out the chapters to show me how I'm going to get there. 
  • Next I build in the beats for each chapter with one sentence descriptions of action and reaction.
Once I've gone through the whole story I work backwards.  
  • I look at each beat and make sure it fits within the logical framework of the foundation of the story and its overall direction. 
  • I examine the structure of each chapter to figure out what goes where, what happens before or after something else and where the subplots, if any, need to go. 
  • Finally, I look at the acts and see if the pace and flow of the story works.
At that point I make myself a drink because I have a plot.

There are certain things that I put in the plot and things I always leave out. The goal of the protagonist in each chapter is explicitly stated in each chapter of the plot. Their emotions as the beats move also gets written down. Any research I need to do, hints or foreshadowing that needs to occur, and implications for other chapters is duly noted. Description, dialogue or other spontaneous details don't go in the plot. I save that for later.

The plot is highly adaptable and fluid at this stage. New subplots and chapters can be added in. Many chapters can be split up, combined or thrown away completely. The beginning,  middle and end can change quickly and easily. Anything can change if it serves the story. Characters sit next to you and offer their opinions. 'I would try to do this', 'I would never say that.' New connections are made and seeds are planted not just for this novel but for other stories down the line. It is like building with Lego. I've got a good idea of what it's supposed to look like, but I'm free to add, subtract and adapt.

Controlling Ideas
As the plot takes shape, the theme or controlling idea comes into focus. The controlling idea is the overall statement describing what they story is about. It is not just a stated value like love, truth or justice. It is a statement that states why a value undergoes change. Once I understand this idea, it will influence everything that I think of as I actually write the manuscript.

Write the Damn Book Already
Once the foundation has been established, the framework has been laid out and the plot has been based on that work, writing the book can actually happen. This three part preparation often takes time, but it makes the actual writing much easier for me. For my last manuscript it took about eight months of working on it off and on to go through all three steps. Writing the actual manuscript took six months or about 3,000 words per week. I still altered the plot while I was writing, but I never had writer's block or wrote myself into a place I couldn't get out of. I plan to start writing the next novel in January. It should be ready for beta reading by May.

I know this process isn't for everyone (See Plotter vs. Pantser). Many writers are struck with a flash of inspiration and rush to the computer. They write for as long as the Muse guides them and the results are based largely on spontaneous creativity (See How Much Inspiration Do You Need?). There is nothing wrong with that. This is the process that works for me. It's not better or worse, it's just different. If you find something here worth stealing, please be my guest. If not, at least you got some idea of how the other half writes.

Have fun.