In this column I’m asking subscribers to share their knowledge about writing, publishing, and marketing their books. I’m calling it “Ten Questions.” Thank you, Ben East, for letting readers know about your civil servants and ordinary citizens, trying to make sense of an Orwellian world. Your two approaches to writing–using an outline vs. letting the story grow organically–will interest writers who are struggling to define their own writing process.–Marylee MacDonald
Ben East’s Author Tip: “I’m a process writer, and prefer the fictive dream to charts and tables. To give that dream a shape, I created an outline geared toward my overall desired word count and stayed flexible as the story followed this path.”
Ben East, (aka B.A. East) (https://amzn.to/2CeUvHP) is the author of Two Pumps for the Body Man and Patchworks.
MM A book begins as an idea in the writer’s imagination. Eventually, this grain of sand turns into a pearl. What was the grain of sand that fired your imagination?
BE Orwellian signs and announcements in the Washington DC Metro: “IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING.” See what, exactly? Commuters staring empty-eyed at iPhone screens while moving like zombies across the platform? What would Big Brother have us report, and to whom would we report it—the harried, overweight station manager?
The Department of Homeland Security, established in the months after 9/11, maintains a stranglehold on our conscious lives more than a decade later with signs that mistakenly suggest we can root out terror from our midst.
Yet even as our government has us jumping at shadows over unspecified “others,” the real threat to our peace and security operates entirely out in the open: What has the government done to prevent the next mass murderer from opening up in yet another bloody round of gun violence? “Thoughts and prayers?” Yet another Orwellian bromide, with no effect.
MM How did you approach turning this idea into a manuscript, and eventually a book? Did you take classes, read books, or just plunge in?
BE I plunged right in, as I always do. I created a narrator, Oscar Keye, an ordinary civil servant, a workaday commuter, a bland victim of his environment. The moment of Oscar’s birth came on a dull autumn morning in DC’s Foggy Bottom Metro station. The fiction process turned him into three different people.
He became fatigued senior manager Howard Graves; and, also, Manny Teague, the middle-aged family man who couldn’t stop talking about his kids; and, he became the bewildered graduate student-slash-intern on the fast path to disillusion, Gabriel Dunne. It was Keye who got off the train at Foggy Bottom, but by the time he trudged up the street to his dreary federal cube farm, he’d become a trinity. His singular point of view disappeared, replaced by a dozen perspectives: those who helped and those who hindered, friends and foes, antagonists, meddlers, wise-guys. Beasts.
In retrospect, research on the facts of gun violence might have strengthened the story’s overall authority. But I’m a process writer, and prefer the fictive dream to charts and tables. To give that dream a shape, I created an outline geared toward my overall desired word count and stayed flexible as the story followed this path.
MM Authors today have many options when it comes to publication. Did you work with an agent, find a publisher through other means, or self-publish your book?
BE My first experience through the agent/publisher process completely changed the ultimate shape of my debut, Two Pumps for the Body Man. To meet the needs of the market and garner the attention of a publisher, my imagined literary work became crime noir. After seven or eight years of living with “the Catch-22 for the War on Terror,” I re-wrote the whole thing all over again for the 20th time from the point of view of a diplomatic security agent. I recount a lot of that process in an interview here.
I did shop Patchworks around along similar lines (lots and lots of queries, hundreds of rejections, and quite a few expressions of interest). In the end, two indie publishers offered to put it out, and I talked to both. I felt most comfortable with Moonshine Cove, and we were off and running.
Where the first book took ten years to bring out, Patchworks was available after only four.
MM What is the biggest single lesson you learned during the writing process?
BE Absolutely do not give up on your story. You may need to be flexible with it, but that flexibility should help you find a broader audience. Speaking of which, getting the book published is one thing and finding its audience another. Marketing and promotion are a heavy burden, and more so for the independent and self-published author.
MM What would you advise others who are still at the idea stage?
BE The idea stage needs sustained attention and oxygen. Without adding words to it in whatever way works—shapeless stream of consciousness, an outline, character descriptions, possible sub-plots, bits of dialogue—the idea never ignites. Blow on the embers every day in order to build that roaring fire.
And take heart: the reverse is not failure. If the idea fails to heat up, it wasn’t meant to be.
MM Were there any writing tools you’d recommend? Did you use apps like Grammarly, Scrivener, or another outliner to help you structure your book?
BE No, no tools. I grind it all out by hand.
My novels get written in one of two ways. There’s the linear way, from start to finish, and then there’s the other way. The linear way itself takes two forms: either I lay out some kind of synopsis or outline from the very beginning and track closely to it, or I freewheel it chapter by chapter, letting the story find its own way into the world. Patchworks follows the outline method.
The other way, the way Two Pumps was written, was like working on a jigsaw puzzle, with pieces scattered all over the floor and the house and moved from house to house and country to country as I took new assignments over the ten years it took to complete and publish. The job was to join disparate episodes, to shave this piece and build that one, to seek and identify episodes from years ago and connect them seamlessly to material written last night. The process was slow, cumbersome, and the trajectory of the narrative—even the primary point of view—didn’t emerge until years later.
MM Was it hard to decide on a cover, or did you or your publisher hire a professional designer?
BE I designed both of my own covers. The first one made the landing page of lousybookcovers(dot)com. The second one did not, so I must have learned something. The most important lesson, for an indie writer, anyway, is to understand the cover’s purpose as one of attraction and drawing the reader in. My first cover tried to be coy, a mystery for the reader to resolve after reading the book. I talk a bit about that in an interview here.
MM Who is your ideal reader? Who would particularly enjoy your book/s?
BE Do you enjoy The Onion or Jon Stewart? Read either of my books. There’s a strong social consciousness element to Patchworks lightened by a sense of humor and the ability to laugh at oneself. Two Pumps takes a similar satiric approach, with a subject matter more narrowly appealing: government people, folks who work and live abroad. But I still think anyone with a sense of humor will enjoy both books, just like Catch-22 is funny for people outside military circles.
MM How do you connect with readers? Do you like to do live events, such as book fairs or library talks, or have you found readers through social media, Goodreads, or Amazon?
BE My biggest weakness is that I am not a social animal. I’ve done a few talks and like the live format best, but I have never drawn more than a dozen folks beyond people I already eat dinner with now and then. And I refuse to deluge social media with round after round of news about my own writing. Now that I’m overseas again, my day job prevents much public speaking in support of my writing. I didn’t find success advertising on Facebook, mainly because I had no patience or appetite for putting small change into the pockets of the mega-rich just to boost the existence of my book.
MM What has been your greatest reward in undertaking this publishing journey? (This doesn’t have to be a financial reward.)
BE Frankly, the reward is the mere fact that the story is out there. Anyone can read it. My perception has been conveyed for all time. Publication, regardless of sales, indicates a form of success and completion.
YAAAY! Another longhand writer!
Outlines don’t necessarily have to contradict organic thoughts in writing. Basically, they’re rough road maps to give direction for where you want your story to go. However, those outlines aren’t written in blood or chistled in stone. Leastwise, they shouldn’t be. If a new idea comes, play with that.
To all intents and purposes, the outline is the skeleton of the story. The first draft is the flesh and the next draft provides….character lines to the story and the characters. I’ve got two books full of a basic outline for a story and, for the most part, I’ve followed the direction, but changes have been made, too.
I’ve heard Stephen King say that he doesn’t keep outlines because they’re a testament to bad writing. Another writer, however, said that crap provides great fertilizer to what could be a great product.
Hi Johanna, Great thoughts to add to the conversation. 🙂