Monday, February 25, 2013

How Do I Cover Thee?

Creating covers for my books makes me crazy.


1. mentally deranged
2. totally unsound
3. passionately excited
4. very enamored or infatuated
5. intensely anxious

Yes, all of those.

As an indie author, I love having the freedom to decide my own cover, don't get me wrong. A great cover, or even dreaming of a great cover, can juice my excitement about releasing a new book. And having had a publisher pick a cover I don't like and can't change... that is much worse than any anxiety that goes into making my own covers.  But the anxiety that goes with deciding on a cover artist/approach, the endless looking through stock photos, and struggling with the right concept for the cover can drive me to distraction. This is partly because a cover is tremendously important for book sales, but also partly because being indie means I have to pay for it too.

The balance is tough.

But here are my lessons learned about covers, for what it's worth:

Covers almost always pay for themselves.
A novel NEEDS a good cover to sell. $300-$400 may seem like a lot, but you'll make that back if you sell even 200 ebooks... and if you're not planning on selling that much, you are aiming too low. You don't have control over sales, but if you've got a good product, you're going to sell more than that. And having a good cover is part of having a good product. Where I struggle is with short stories, but my experience (so far) has been that even my short stories will sell enough to justify spending $50-$100 on cover art. Even on a 99cent short, you only have to sell 300 of those to cover art.

My take away: spend the money on art! Stop agonizing over it! (I mostly listen to this.)

Covers must convey genre and concept, not story.
Authors fall down when they try to design a cover that tells the story of their book. That's what the blurb is for! Covers convey genre, set tone, and sell the concept of the story on an emotional level. Reader's responses to covers are almost entirely emotional/instinctual. You have to heed that response, no matter how "accurate" you may think your cover represents what's inside.
This says: Contemporary Romance
This is my friend Leigh's book. It's awesome. Go buy it.

This says: Cool Science Fiction
This is my friend Lee's book. It is also awesome Go buy it.

This is some gorgeous art, and I almost spent a bunch on acquiring it for the cover for my east-indian, steampunk fantasy romance novel. Why didn't I? East-indian? Check! Steampunk? Check! Fantasy Romance... not so much. I was missing a key genre in the cover, so no matter how beautiful (it is! look at it!), I decided I had to pass. 

My take away: Spend time thinking about the concept/genre you're trying to convey with your cover as much as how you would like to portray the story or what stock art/artist/artwork you would like to use for it.

Get A Professional to Help
I try to get my ideas together first for a cover. I look at top 100 bestsellers. I think about concept/genre. I troll stock art sites and download scads of images to peruse. But in the end, I go to my cover designer and ask for help. Creatively collaborating with an artist to bring your vision of a cover to life? That's the part I like! And the cover designer will have fantastic ideas about how to draw the audience into the image itself, how to make it shine, and how to make it look professional.

My take away: having a professional in your corner is also worth the cost.

Trolling stock art sites still gives me a headache. Just sayin...

Susan Kaye Quinn is the author of the bestselling Mindjack Series, which includes three novels, three novellas, and a trailer. She's currently writing a steampunk fantasy romance, just for kicks, but she keeps getting distracted by a future-noir series of novellas that want to be written. Finding covers for an entire series of novellas has pushed her over the edge in the stock-art-looking-department. At which point, she usually goes and plays on Facebook until she feels better.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Crucible

...when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.

Harry and Voldy, in the crucible of "the Prophecy"
I've been reading David Farland's e-book "Million Dollar Outlines" lately to review elements of story and the various tools useful to writing fiction.

One area he covers is the crucible; the element of the story that keeps your characters there/involved/together. The thing that answers the question about why they don't just leave or give up when the trouble starts.

In one of my writing projects, this element is a struggle, because the characters have to keep deciding to be involved each day, voluntarily, actively, and their involvement means that bad things keep happening to them. The reader is certainly going to ask: Why would they stay here?

In Dave's book, he uses the example of a man and woman in a bad marriage. Why don't they just get divorced? Marriage is a voluntary arrangement. Of course, we all would come up with his answer: the children. It is believable that they would try to work things out for the sake of the children.

So there must be reasons, good reasons, why our characters keep going, keep on keeping on, even in the face of trial and tribulation.

I did a brainstorming exercise once with Orson Scott Card where we all came up with a lot of answers to the "why?" question, and he kept twisting and turning the answers until we came up with less cliche outcomes. I think this is also important to do with our crucibles.

Maybe the married couple stay together for the children, that's easy. But let's twist that. Perhaps instead it is the stress from the children that is tearing the couple apart. Maybe the children even want the divorce, or say they do. So what then? We get to dig deeper and invent new reasons the couple must stay together. Maybe both husband and wife both had divorced parents and never wanted to become like their parents. Or maybe everyone told the wife she was making a mistake, that the marriage would never last, and she wants desperately to prove everyone wrong. Maybe the husband hates failure and so doesn't want to admit defeat. Maybe one or the other is in politics or business where the image of marriage is important. Whatever we choose, we must have a crucible or we have no story. We must thoroughly answer the reader questions about why our characters are going through the trouble instead of giving up or avoiding it. Otherwise, they just seem like dogged dolts.

So, what are some of your favorite crucibles, either in stories you've written or read?

Write on,
Amber M

Monday, February 18, 2013

Winning Philosophy

I don't mean to bump Amber's post down when it's only been up for a day, but when she posted it we didn't know that she'd won first place in the school age category of the DragonComet short story contest, sponsored by the Life, the Universe, and Everything Symposium.

After we did some happy yelling, I spread the news on facebook (just to Hawaii friends since everyone on the mainland was already asleep) while Amber went back to her room. I found her there a half-hour later, typing away at one of her novels.

"You're writing?" I asked. "You're just calmly sitting there, writing?" Life, the Universe, and Everything is one of the biggest and oldest academic symposiums on Science Fiction and Fantasy in America. Some of our favorite authors were there, and they all heard my daughter's name announced as a first place winner! I was still geeking out.

Amber hunched down in her big, orange writing chair and peeked up at me from behind her computer. "Mom, winning first place doesn't change the story."


She already knew she'd written a great story. It was nice that some other people agreed, but in the end, what mattered most to her was the satisfaction she'd already got from writing that story, and the need to work on her next one.

Now that is a winning philosophy.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Work and Play

Hi, this is your cabin girl, and I was supposed to post last week...
...But I didn't.
So I'm posting now.

For the past few months, I've been in the unusual position of having two writing projects at the same time that are of equal importance to me. And today I realized a really big difference between them. And it's the difference between work and play.

One of my stories, the one I started first, is kind of a serious fantasy story with well-defined magical rules and intense, complex problems the characters have to overcome. I can't just scribble down scenes in the last fifteen minutes of math class for this story, this is a story that I have to seriously think about, and I need three or four hour long chunks of free time and a computer to make anything happen. I love this story, and every new idea I get for it, even just what my characters are going to talk about during the next scene, excites me.

The other story, the one I didn't start until a few months ago, is more light-hearted and fun, with a magic system I make up as I go, and characters I can't get enough of. I can use two-minute periods to jot down the next few sentences, no matter where I am or what's happening in the story. I've got a general idea of the plot, but when it comes down to  the next scene, I don't know what will happen until I write it. I love this story too, but for different reasons.

The first story feels like hard work and thought exercise, but that doesn't make it any less fun than the second story, which feels like a hobby or a game. And the second story, despite my lack of attention to detail and simple plot, has gotten a lot of positive feedback from my readers.

I think both stories are important for me to write.

People need both work and play. Writing can be either.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Full Novel Review

Last year, Kevin and Chersti’s group did a full novel review:

What a great idea!

Our writer's group decided to do it, too. We set a goal to swap novels by January 1st. Honestly, we had no idea how big a whale we set out to eat (think a monster blue whale), but it was worth the effort.

First off, no matter the state our manuscript was in, we submitted on the due-date. Period. Not a day (or year) later.

Second, we each asked the critiquers for specific things we were looking for, like character arcs, plot, flow, etc.

Third, we put simple requirements on the reviewing process:
a)      Read the manuscript fast.
b)      Write a one page review. (Anyone who wanted to do more, could.)

The reviewing process was simple:

1)     Have a moderator.
2)     Review the good things about the story. 
3)     Review the things that needed work.
4)     Open it up for discussion.

Even though it was among friends, it was still a bit unnerving. Several people in the group felt my first hundred pages moved too slowly and didn’t help the plot.

Honesty. True Honesty. It’s a blessing that can hurt.

However, one of the benefits of a group review was it helped weed through the subjectivity and find things collectively-agreed-upon that needed attention. And yeah, even the subjective items were pretty on-target. The first hundred pages that did absolutely nothing for my story? Gone.

However - DISCLAIMER: After receiving a review, always allow yourself time to think it through. Make decisions after your emotions simmer down.

Long story short, I have a nice list of bullet points to work on. I have a growing respect for the power of various perspectives. I’m grateful for the time the others invested in my story, and hope as I review theirs, I use as much tact. (I expected a karate-chop, and all I got was a quick band-aid removal.)

And Kevin, thanks for telling us about it! It’s a great help.