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How hard could it be

When I began promoting Talion, I noticed book trailers were hot. I found dozens on You Tube, thirty-second or one minute ads with authors talking about their books or music and visuals to evoke the book’s atmosphere. I thought Talion deserved a trailer too. And I knew right away what it would be. In my novel, Conrad (Rad) Sanders, a serial killer, visits the grave of a victim to remember their night together. My trailer would be a sequence of cemetery shots with a voiceover reading the passage and creepy music playing in the background.

I looked online for a video artist to transform my idea into reality and found it would cost far more than my budget allowed. Disappointed, I knew I should forget the whole thing. But I couldn’t quite do it. The book trailer would be a highly dramatic and visual way to call attention to my novel, and I was proud of my concept. I hadn’t seen any trailers like the one I imagined for Talion. I decided to make it myself. Sure, I had zero experience in making videos. But my husband, Joe, a film professor, had taught filmmaking for years. He would show me how.

I already owned one essential piece of equipment, a Vado mini-cam that I’d bought on sale. It’s not much of a camera, but it does shoot high-def video. One lovely spring morning, I took it out to the local cemetery and shot footage for my book trailer. I rushed home, downloaded the shots onto my desktop, and asked Joe to look at them. I was mortified at what he saw. Surely my hands weren’t that shaky. I had to stop drinking so much coffee. And every single shot ended with a long and pointless pan, as though something off to the side kept drawing my attention.

“I suck,” I said.

“This shot is interesting,” Joe said, pointing to a tree shadow falling across a fresh grave. As for the others, he just shrugged. “If this is what you have, this is what you work with.”

No way, I thought grimly. I bought a small tripod and returned to the cemetery.

My second attempt at camerawork yielded more promising results, and I decided to plunge ahead and purchase editing software. This was the moment of commitment. So far I’d only spent a few bucks on the tripod. Now I was poised to lay out serious money. If I bought the software and never made the trailer, Joe would never let me forget it.

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I recognize that nasal stranger

I used Soundbooth to record myself reading the passage from Talion. Listening to my own voice was painful. Worse, the recording was peppered with electronic noise and distortion. Figuring I just needed practice using Soundbooth, I fiddled with the settings and made a second recording. More snap, crackle, and pop. I gazed at the pathetic toy microphone in my hand. Clearly an inadequate tool. I went online and spent another thirty-five bucks on a directional microphone, then settled into the task of not botching my own words. After twenty or thirty takes, I had a recording that I could listen to without cringing.

I hoped my voice would sound more impressive with the right background music. Soundbooth comes with access to lots of royalty-free music that can be remixed. These downloads are categorized according to type, so I previewed music composed to evoke horror, suspense, or mystery. Nothing was precisely what I wanted. After much fussing and fretting, I settled on a gothic piece with a creepy choral track that created the right mood, but even muted it had the potential to be overwhelming. I played the voiceover track while mixing the music to make sure that didn’t happen. It only took another ten hours.

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Storyboard and Rough Cut

Joe laid down the rules. First, I had to make a storyboard laying out the shots of my book trailer and matching them to the voiceover narrative. Then I had to make a rough cut in Premier Pro. My trailer should be 60 seconds long precisely, Joe told me, like an ad on TV.

“But why?” I insisted. “You Tube doesn’t have rules about the length.”

“People get bored if it’s too long,” Joe said. “Besides, you got to work within a form. You got to have some artistic discipline.”

Okay, I understood that concept.

Working on my storyboard, I soon realized the passage from Talion would take longer than sixty seconds to read, so I shortened it. Then shortened it again. I began to see interesting relationships between the narrative and the images, which helped me to choose which shots to include and suggested how they might be arranged. I finished the storyboard and made the rough cut, trimming the shots and placing them in sequence in Premier Pro. Joe said the rough cut should run about 90 seconds. Mine ran close to three minutes. It was extra rough.

Watching it play on Premier Pro, I realized the string of images lacked coherence. I shuffled shots around – removing some, adding others – until my original storyboard was no more than a memory. I went back to the unused clips for more material and rediscovered all my reasons for not using them in the first place. I needed more. Finally, I drove to a tiny church cemetery in the country and shot the footage to complete my grand vision. After further tinkering and trimming, I had a rough cut that looked okay.

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There’s nothing you can’t FX

I trimmed my rough cut to a 60-second video keyed to the narrative voiceover. Still it wasn’t right. The framing and unsteadiness of some shots made them look like vacation movies. Since they were filmed on three separate occasions, the lighting and color tone didn’t match. All the shots were too cheerfully green for the creepy effect I wanted. But to my relief, Adobe Premier Pro has fixes for these problems.

Shots could be reframed – to a point. Extreme cropping blurred the image. But in most cases I only needed to trim a bit off the edges to improve the composition of shot. In one case I made a radical crop so an inscription on a gravestone that read FATHER MOTHER became HER MOTHER. I liked it enough to put up with a bit of fuzziness.

Here is the original frame:

 


Here is the frame that appears in the trailer:

The stone angel, the last image in the trailer except for the book cover, is a more typical example of how I reframed shots. Here is the original:

Here is the frame that appears in the trailer:

 

I eliminated shakiness by exporting stills from the footage and using those images in place of the shots. The lack of motion looked absolutely unnatural, an effect I liked, especially in contrast to the shots that had movement – the wind ruffling flowers or spinning a toy windmill. Premier Pro also has a function to minimize shakiness, which I used for a shot that wasn’t altogether palsied.

Next I adjusted the brightness and contrast of the shots to make them consistent. One shot gave me problems because it was so much darker than the others. Brightened, it had a strange sheen. I couldn’t cut that shot; it was necessary to the visual narrative. I kept fiddling with the brightness but never got it exactly right. If you watch the trailer, you can probably tell which one I’m talking about. It did become less conspicuous after I adjusted the color to give the video a more somber cast.

The trailer ended with a shot of the book cover. I wanted to zoom the cover so it came hurtling dramatically toward the viewer, but Joe nixed the idea.

“It’s jive-ass,” he said. “Show some restraint.”

Oh well, one less thing to do.

At Joe’s suggestion I added cross-dissolve transitions between shots, and then my book trailer was finished. Finally. It was precisely 60 seconds long and, I thought, not bad for a first effort. I posted it on You Tube and Facebook and here on my blog. Links to it appear on several Web sites including Pump Up Your Book, If Books Could Talk, and The Hot Author Report. Recently I ended gave a presentation on publishing and promotion to a local group. I ended by showing of my trailer, “Rad Pays His Respects.” Afterward, of course, I sold copies of Talion. There were still buyers in line when I ran out of copies, and I like to think my book trailer had something to do with it.

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Becoming a Writer

I’m thrilled to be a guest blogger on the site Review from Here. My post describes the moment when my imagination came to life:

 When I was four, my family lived in Soldiers’ Summit, Utah, a forlorn place high in the Wasatch Mountains. Population two or three dozen people, tops. Our house was heated with a coal stove. It had running water but no indoor toilet. My father had been working as a dispatcher . . .

Maybe a Blunt Rejection Hurts Less

Yesterday I was looking through an old copy of Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel when came across this form rejection tucked between the pages. I forget what story I submitted to The Quarterly but  I remember that this form letter, which tries so hard to cushion the blow, didn’t make me feel any better about being rejected. Why is that? If anyone has a theory, let me know.

Sorry it’s so huge. The type gets very blurry when the size is reduced.

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Review of Talion

Talion has received a short but sweet review from Mystee on her blog, A Moment with Mystee .  The blog is worth checking out for the many giveaway opportunities as well as the reviews.

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Talion Virtual Book Tour

Please join me on my first virtual book tour. The complete tour schedule can be found on my Web site or at Pump Up Your Book promotions.

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Hallelujah! Happy, Happy, Happy!

I’ve just received the kind of review every writer dreams of. Not only does the reviewer love Talion but he appreciates what I’m doing in the novel. He notices style. And has style!

Lu Jakes doesn’t have a chance.

She never had one. She’s a teenager trapped in a Utah trailer with a drunk for a dad and a sadistic slattern for a stepmom. Her only friends are phantoms in her head.

And now she’s attracted the attention of a sexual torturer and serial killer…

Lu is the protagonist of Eastern Illinois University English professor Mary Maddox’s thriller “Talion” (now available from Amazon), a dark gem she has polished to a purple luster.

Peer inside. You’ll see a crime novel, and something else lurking there in the shadows. “Silence of the Lambs” meets “The Turn of the Screw.”

Please read the rest of Dan Hagen’s review of Talion in the Charleston Times-Courier: Dan Hagen%sq243%s review

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I Am Interviewed on Bookpleasures.com

Here is a brief excerpt of my interview with Norm Goldman of Bookpleasures.com:

“I’m not quite sure why the macabre draws me. It’s probably a combination of temperament, personal history and literary preferences. I see darkness in the world, in people, most of all in myself. But there’s light as well. I hope readers will see the light in Talion as well as the darkness. In the macabre as a literary form I see two elements – fascination and dread. Edgar Allen Poe’s stories have these elements. His neurasthenic characters are obsessed by the things they fear most. The black cat, the beating heart of the murder victim, the horror of being buried alive. And the reader willingly participates. Why? I guess for the same reason that people can’t drive past a car wreck without slowing down to gawk. It’s strange, gawkers hoping to witness a gruesome injury that will haunt their dreams. Yet they can’t seem to resist the fascination of the accident scene.”

To read more, follow the link below:


http://www.bookpleasures.com/websitepublisher/articles/2732/1/Meet-Mary-Maddox-Author-of-Talion/Page1.html

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I Am Interviewed by Mighty Bear Woman

Mighty Bear Woman (a.k.a. Daiva Markelis) poses incisive questions on my writing and career. Check it out. And while you’re there, enjoy the thrilling and unpredictable Adventures of Mighty Bear Woman!

How Rad Entered the Story

Talion began as a novella about a friendship between teenage girls from very different backgrounds. The story dragged, weighed down by exposition of the characters’ pasts and a present where the conflict arose from their general distrust of one another. Nothing was happening! I came to realize the plot needed a catalyst, a threat that would bring them together or destroy them.

 

So Conrad (Rad) Sanders entered the story, stalking them, watching them sunbathe at a old dam in the mountains, waiting his chance. The narrative was third person with multiple points of view, and I couldn’t avoid including Rad’s. But his character was so far outside my experience that I couldn’t get very far without doing research on sexual sadism and serial killers.

 

I didn’t have to look far for material. Serial killers had already been popularized in other fiction, most prominently Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs and his compelling  villain Hannibal Lector, whose powers verged on the supernatural.  It seemed Harris and every other creator of fictional serial killers drew material from the work of the FBI agents who had studied these criminals: Robert Ressler, John Douglas, Roy Hazelwood. These men had spent years tracking, interviewing, and analyzing serial killers. They had written books on the subject, both popular works and criminology texts. After reading these, I moved on to books by police detectives who had worked serial killer cases and books devoted to the crimes of particular notorious criminals: Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, the Zodiac killer, etc.

 

I came to the conclusion that serial killers are losers. Abused or neglected as children, driven by rage and inadequacy, they lack the capacity for empathy that makes love possible. Yet, like all monsters, they can be fascinating.

 

Before long, Rad began to take over my novel.