Archive for 2012/02/26

Writing advice from a six-year-old: Bewaaare the dark and stormy cliche

My daughter, wife and I sat in the TV room. It was just before bedtime and my six-year-old was watching a movie she hadn’t seen in a while.

My wife and I were trying to talk to her about the actors involved, the special effects, the storyline, how the movie wouldn’t be so spooky if it happened in real life… You know: All the usual stuff parents distract themselves with when they’re desperately trying to avoid having to actually watch a particularly bad kid’s movie.

My daughter watched the movie for another moment, then she looked at me and said:

“All bad guys always brag about themselves.”


I was impressed. The blanket statement wasn’t really something you can apply to all villains, but from someone with her level of exposure to “bad guys”, it was very observant.

This revelation came from the mind of a child raised on Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks. (Yeah, I see problems with that list, too. My wife and I know there’s a problem and we’re trying to fix it.)

In storytelling, it’s a tricky situation. We want to avoid cliches because they can make for a predictable and by-the-numbers story. However, we still want to introduce conflict, adventure, appealing characters and all the ingredients that make a great story, and there are a limited number of ways to do that. 

Granted, sometimes celebrating a cliche leads to great entertainment. The movie Office Space, the TV series South Park and the movie series Austin Powers are good examples. I see those as something to work up to, but they’re not something to emulate unless you understand what makes them work.

"You've won this round, He-Man, but I'll get you next time... Neeext tiiime!"

Some people (think Aardman Animations’ Wallace and Gromit) tell brilliant stories without falling into many cliches – I remember when I watched “The Wrong Trousers” for the first time, I was amazed at the creativity of such a unique and entertaining story. Yet for a plotline, it used a cliche of a jewelry heist. I didn’t care (until writing this article, I never even noticed), because everything surrounding it is so well done.

My point in writing this is to illustrate how cliches are sometimes necessary as part of standard story structure, but when done incorrectly they can make your story formulaic. A six-year-old may like it. Your intended audience may not. So be careful. Beware the dark and stormy cliches. Determine if they’re really needed, or if you can change them into something more creative and surprising.

One predictable cliche is that, when writing an article about cliches, I finish by using one. Instead, I’d rather wrap up with advice I’ll remember for my own writing, as a paraphrased recommendation from my daughter:

“Bad guys don’t need to brag about themselves.”

Self-publishing audiobooks: My experience with ACX

ACX, or the “Audiobook Creation Exchange”, is a company dedicated to the production of audiobooks. …Or perhaps “production” is the wrong word. But it wouldn’t look as smooth for the marketing copy to say “a crowdsourced program that puts authors in touch with audiobook readers, and vice versa, and provides a low-cost way of doing so”. 

In my case, I finished my book Dev Manny #1: Superliminal. I’d already published it as a paper book and ebook, and then I decided to try out ACX and publish it as an audiobook.

How does ACX work?

The process was easy: Upload a sample of the book for potential actors to read (I used the first chapter of the book), then describe what kind of voice and reader you’re looking for. You’ve got plenty of options – you can specify various accents, ages, and traits like “comic timing”.

Here’s what I specified what I was looking for in my “Superliminal” narrator:

Once I specified what I was looking for, my next step was to wait. In this case, it wasn’t for very long: Within a day or so I had three auditions for the voice of Dev Manny!

Then it was up to me to pick the one I liked best, and work with the narrator to get the voice just the way I wanted it. Then I set up a contract with them (this was brokered by ACX). This is where ACX shines, because while authors can pay narrators for their time (starting at around $200 per hour, and I would keep all royalities), authors can alternatively pay nothing up front, and split the audiobook royalties 50/50 with the narrator. This last option is what I did.

After that, the narrator does the rest of the work in the process of physically narrating the book and editing that effort. After another approval process from me, ACX took over, then placed the audiobook in Amazon,, and the iTunes Store.

Is ACX worth it?

In my case, yes. ACX is great. Thanks to ACX, I have a great-sounding audiobook available of my work for a very low cost, and sales/distribution/royalties are handled for me. I’m very happy with the results.

I have only one complaint about ACX, and it’s small: At the time of this writing, they do not support direct deposit of royalty funds. Once your royalty balance hits $50, they mail out a check. ACX is partnered with Amazon – you actually use your Amazon ID to sign on to the service. Other Amazon services and partners support direct deposit (like KDP, CreateSpace and crowdSPRING), and it would be more convenient if ACX supported this too, but they don’t.

Special thanks to Charles Bice, the guy you hear narrating “Superliminal”. I’m proud and impressed that Dev Manny has such a cool voice. Check out Bice’s work – he’s narrated and written many other books.

I’ve been happy enough with ACX that I’m doing it again – my book “Waking the Dreamer” is going through ACX audiobook production right now!