I sat in on a ZOOM meeting last Thursday night. The meeting was the first of a monthly series hosted by my publisher and features authors of books published by them. My turn is coming in December.
The featured author for the night was a lady whose education includes a PhD in Symbolic Learning. She talked for an hour about her latest book, and took questions from the other members.
I confess that hearing the title of Symbolic Learning had me visualizing Robert Langdon, the Harvard professor in the series of books written by Dan Brown, played wonderfully by Tom Hanks. However, he is a professor of Symbology, not Symbolic Learning, and I don’t even know if that’s a real department at Harvard or whether Dan Brown is just pulling my leg.
Getting past imagining this lady as a puzzle solver traipsing around Europe chasing remarkable criminal masterminds, I admitted that I didn’t know what “symbolic learning” meant. Thankfully, skirting a formal definition, she described herself as a professional storyteller, and it is the symbols (people, creatures, landscapes, structures, and more) contained in stories that describe or teach the aspects of culture. More personally, it is how an individual relates to those symbols that reflects their beliefs in life.
That’s my off-the-cuff definition, but not getting bogged down in the details, I can see how someone can reveal their values, for example, by the stories they tell.
The lady, who was very nice, literate, and open, sees stories - be they fairytales, memories, historical renderings of events, fictional portrayals of people, or family hand-me-downs - as the vehicles for showing who we are, what we’ve learned, how we change, how we relate to each other, or why we value what we value. From individuals to societies to cultures. Her day job is hosting workshops that help participants cope with life by teaching themselves to express their feelings and experiences through storytelling.
I stink as a storyteller, so I think of myself more as a storywriter. It’s a fact that I have trouble telling stories because I can’t remember anything longer than a minute, tend to wander away from the script, and invariably change the story as I tell it. Those characteristics are probably hooked to my personality being somewhat obsessive-compulsive, with not a little of perfectionist tendencies. I think more of my being a poor storyteller as just an internal sense of direction connected to a haywire compass: I can’t see, walk, or talk in a straight line from one point to another. It’s frustrating for some but it makes my days more interesting.
So, I don’t tell stories and I’m happy with that; using my voice is not my talent. But I do claim to be a storywriter. I’m comfortable with presenting stories to readers if I can create a story and then revise it umpteen times until I think it’s a reasonably finished product that has a beginning, an end, and a middle.
I won’t belabor the point because I’ve written about my need for rewriting in other blogs, but I do want to talk about the “learning” part of the author’s degree, because, as I listened to her, I recognized that stories are, perhaps, the way we present difficult, complex, and gray-area concepts and values so that the concepts and values are greatly simplified, understandable, observable, and teachable.
Which is probably why Jesus used parables rather than sermons.
My three-year-old granddaughter cannot read, but it doesn’t prevent her from taking one of her picture books, gathering an audience of stuffed kangaroos, pandas, bears, monkeys, and other toy animals into a corner of the room, and “reading” a book to them. She never misses a page, will talk and point to the different parts of each page, and will perform her best imitation of adult voices, intonations, laughs, facial expressions, and string of emphatic gestures. It’s rather remarkable, but there is no doubt that telling her the stories has taught her the stories, and what the adults emphasized is now what she emphasizes. She has learned not only the story but what’s important about the story.
Storytelling and storywriting are like holding up mirrors to people so they make the connection between the story and themselves: what is happening in the story is relevant to what is happening to them. My characters are easier to create, imagine, and fulfill if they look like my readers, and consequently look like me. I can pick a certain trait out of my experience and create an evil person, a good person, a flawed person, a changing person, a fool, an expert, a lover, a hater, and so on. It sometimes takes a lot of imagination to translate the traits into fiction without using stereotypes but the authenticity still comes through.
My readers can identify with my characters’ personality traits because I use common human traits seen every day. I have to work harder on traits that are extreme, but, even then, I never create characters whose descriptions can’t be found in daily newspapers or tabloid exposes. I also make characters change in ways that they perhaps should have, did or didn’t, but still work to make them commonplace. If I do this consistently enough, and obvious enough, then those characters start to stand for something independent of the plot. They, in fact, become “symbols” that reflect the traits of the readers.
That enhances the connection between the story and the reader, and makes the stories more meaningful, relevant, and interesting.
There’s a quaint bookstore in Santa Fe named Beastly Books. It’s next door to the Jean Cocteau Cinema, a small, boutique-level film theater that seats around a hundred people and is devoted to showing small-run films. Both of these, plus the upper floor offices in the multi-storied building, are owned by George R. R. Martin. George is the author of the Game of Thrones book series; he lives in Santa Fe.
If you’re ever in Santa Fe, you should visit Beastly Books. It has two rooms showcasing the books associated with Game of Thrones (including autographed editions), books associated with George (collections, as editor, etc.), popular games and gadgets associated with Game of Thrones and various off-shoots of the series, plus collectible items such as figurines, sculptures, and posters.
It also offers coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, should you want to sip on something while you browse.
Two additional rooms have shelves full of other fiction books, all personally selected by George or his entourage. Most of them are autographed by the authors. There is one rack of books that features local and Southwest authors and that’s what interests me: I’ve asked that Teddy’s War and The King of Trash be carried by the bookstore.
Fat chance. Being offered by the bookstore is a reviewed process. I sent in autographed copies of each book, they are being read and discussed by the bookstore manager and friends (probably not by George) and then a decision will be made. If selected, I will provide autographed copies on an as-needed basis, advertising materials, be available for author signings, and will provide a book trailer.
Book trailer? I didn’t even know what a “book trailer” was, though I assumed it was comparable to a movie trailer. I’d seen short video ads on TV and Facebook, and figured that that was what was being asked for. I have since learned that a book trailer is typically a short (around one minute) video that advertises a book. It can be as simple as a person holding up a book and telling about it (or reading an excerpt), or as complex as a Tom Cruise-type action sequence indicating that the book’s story is a thrilling escapade of adventure, danger, world-ranging daring, and impending death-for-the-hero events. Or it can be mysterious and noir, and have no narration. Similarly, it can be done as cheaply as zero cost, all the way to thousands of dollars per death-defying event or spooky subtones. It can have music, it can have special effects, it can have Morgan Freeman narrating, or it can be as boring as a video of a (literal) page turner that tells the title, publisher, cost, and source for purchasing.
No matter the presentation, the idea is to get the viewer to be aware of the book, or even to buy it.
I decided to experiment and make a book trailer for Teddy’s War, and it turned out to be a ton of fun.
First, I bought a video editor. You can buy one for a one-time cost, or a monthly or yearly fee. I prefer to pay up front rather than have a continuing deduction, so I bought Wondershare Filmora 9 for about $129. I chose it because I googled “video editors”, it had good enough reviews, and was cheap enough. I had seen a video editor being used by a friend, so I had a concept about the features it should provide. In retrospect, I might put more effort into researching for a better editor or getting a recommendation, but I was in the heat of the moment.
A video editor is just a piece of software that you buy, install (it does it for you), and run like a word processor, photograph sorter, or other application. In my case, I double-click on the icon; the video editor begins; uses the full screen of the monitor for a viewing window in the upper righthand corner that displays, at any time, the video that I’m creating; a window in the upper lefthand corner that gives me a choice of what I want to do (add a video, a photo, add text, use special effects…); and, across the bottom half of the screen, has a graphic showing the different video, audio, or text tracks that I’ve added. Displaying all of the tracks at any time shows what my video looks like at that time.
I’m trying to make it sound simple because it basically is. Throw in watching a few how-to videos from YouTube, and it only took three or four hours to build a short video in which I combined a personal video of Omaha Beach that I had taken last year with my SLR digital camera, a personal video that I had made using props on my kitchen table (with the same camera), a sound track that I recorded off the TV using my iPhone, a still photo, and several words of text that I overlayed in certain frames. I could also have used video and audio tracks from free-to-use libraries that came with the editor.
The final video I produced (exported from the video editor into a standard format so I can play it anywhere) is a good, first-try, 90-second, amateur video that shows a picture of my book, gives an idea of what it’s about, indicates that it has drama, intrigue, history, a WWII setting, and an emotional crisis for my character.
Not bad for a first try, and my second try was much better.
I’d post the URL so you can see it, but the music is not mine. I used a recording as a proof of concept so it’s no good to offer the video for public viewing.
Will George accept my book into his bookstore? If he does, then I have a couple of professional film maker friends who will help me turn my amateur version into a professional product that will become my official book trailer (and uses free music). If George doesn’t, then I may invest a little more effort to make it better and use it as part of my marketing efforts for Teddy’s War.
I’ll let you know what happens.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.