Archive for April, 2009


The Art and Science of Book Covers

Apologies in advance to people who heard about this first on my blog; yeah, I’m still psyched about it. Sorry.

So at last I’ve reached the first of hopefully many psychological milestones in my career as a pro writer: seeing my book’s cover art. But wait, you say. (Go along with me, here.) How is that your first psychological milestone? Shouldn’t it be, oh, learning to deal with rejection? Your first conversation with your editor? Your first reading? Your first look at a book contract, with all the promise and peril that it entailed?

Pshaw — all that stuff is business. This is personal.

Except it’s business too. A book’s cover art is probably its most effective marketing tool, short of the author’s name once that name becomes a known brand. A good cover must convey many things simultaneously — whether the book will appeal to its target audience, some hint of the book’s plot or theme, and enough mystery to intrigue readers into pulling it off the shelf. Most covers actually convey quite a bit more than that, including subliminal messages. For example, I’ve been told by folks in the publishing industry that the reason we see so many “faceless” (e.g., back turned towards the viewer, head cut off, or silhouetted) female characters on a certain kind of urban fantasy novel is so that the reader can “project” herself onto the character more easily. These tend to be urban fantasies featuring the “kick-ass” heroine archetype, and they’re meant to appeal to women readers of SF/F who’ve been starved for agency and empowerment in their entertainment. By encouraging reader projection, these book covers send the message: “Read this and you’ll feel more powerful.” And given the popularity of this subset of urban fantasy, the message must be working.

Thing is, this kind of messaging can go both ways, inadvertently discouraging readers if the cover is cliched, tasteless, or makes incorrect assumptions about the book’s audience. A great example of the latter is the infamous practice of “whitewashing” (usage best-known from Ursula LeGuin’s reference to television, but applies to books too), in which cover art depicts a character as white when the character is actually some other race. I’m told that in the bad old days, a similar phenomenon happened to female protagonists too; they got sex changes on the cover, or the cover art was arranged in such a way as to put male characters — even minor ones — at the forefront. The message inherent in these kinds of covers is a little less friendly, at least beyond the target audience: “Hey, white males, come check out this book! And if you’re not white and male, you know you want to be, so come enjoy the vicarious experience of being a white guy, as if you don’t already get that experience every time you open a book!”

So, since the protagonist of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a non-white non-man, you can imagine I was a little anxious about my cover art.

Worse, my book doesn’t fit so neatly into the existing subgenres of SF/F. It’s a “big” story, full of world-changing politics and religion, so I guess that makes it epic fantasy. We’ve seen what epic fantasy covers usually look like: sweeping vistas, one or several characters doing “dramatic” things, maybe some monsters. But wait! There’s a prominent love story in my book too, including a couple of (if I may say so myself) steamy scenes. And the story takes place in a palace so huge that it’s a city in its own right. That means it might appeal to urban fantasy and paranormal romance readers too. And we know what those covers tend to look like: the aforementioned faceless woman in a sexy outfit or pose, or a handsome man baring his arms, chest, belly, etc. Maybe a vampire/werewolf/demon hanging out nearby, and maybe a cityscape in the background. There’s more! The story includes a Plot-Critical Magical Object, which the characters are all vying to control. So it’s also got some quest fantasy elements, and those look like… heck, they’re all over the place.

All marketing considerations aside, though, this still is my baby we’re talking about — the story that I poured several years of my life into, wrote twice in fact, had dreams about, spent vacations working on, annoyed my friends babbling about. So although I tried to keep my expectations open for the cover art… y’know, in secret? I was a nervous wreck. I even had a nightmares about it. In one, the cover art featured a dog in a tutu, racing up a mountain. (No, I hadn’t been drinking. That’s a stereotype, you know.)

Anyway, last week, finally, the wait was over.
Continue reading ‘The Art and Science of Book Covers’


Editing, or, Do I have spinach in my teeth?

I went home to Indiana for a few days recently, flying out and back so quickly that it already feels unreal.  I was there for a number of reasons — library talk, awesome alumni visit, showing off the resident organist and saying “I got me a good one!” — so writing wasn’t the main point of the visit.  But it did come up several times, in a social context, and one exchange stayed with me.  I was talking with several friends of the family, and I mentioned the changes that my agent and my editor had requested, and how many stages the book had gone through to get to its finished state.  And one of the gentlemen there patted me on the shoulder and told me that next time they ask for changes, I ought to stick to my guns and say no.

My first thought was well, no, that’s not how it works.  And my second thought was hang on, what makes me say that? Continue reading ‘Editing, or, Do I have spinach in my teeth?’


Making Time

I missed a week updating here entirely, and I even missed doing a quickie on Sunday, and I wish I could say it was because I was busy taking the sun in Aruba and drinking something full of rum and tropical fruit squeezins’, but alas the truth is more prosaic — I had to spend some extra time at the day job last Tuesday, and this Sunday I was down in Santa Cruz (my favorite town) at a big party, and got home too tired to do anything but my freelancing-for-money work.

Time management is always tricky when you’re a writer, and I’m usually pretty good at it, but the realities of life do occasionally squeeze one’s time away, at which point, it’s best to consult the Hierarchy of Deadlines and Money, which states that you should blow off the non-paying stuff first.

Whenever I hear people say, “Oh, I’d love to write a novel, but I just don’t have the time,” my (usually, but not always, silent) response is, “What are you talking about? Do you think I have the time? I have a full-time job, a wife, a toddler, steady freelance non-fiction gigs, and an addiction to bad TV. I don’t have time either. So what? I make time.”

And that’s the way you do it. For me, it’s not that bad, honestly — I’m not going to give you some poor-me song-and-dance. I like writing most days, and many days, I like writing even more than I like bad TV! So overcoming that first barrier-to-entry and sitting my rear down at the keyboard isn’t usually too tough, since I find writing first drafts recreational. (Revising is a bit less fun, and copyedits/proofreading/etc. are even less fun.) But, still; you have to make the time.

I wish I could say there were magic tricks for making more time, but, probably, you gotta give something up. When my kid gets me up at 6 a.m. and takes a nap at noon, I’d love to crawl into bed for two or three hours myself, but instead, I usually write. On my lunch breaks at work, I’d like to sit on the deck and watch hummingbirds or read, but (at least when I’m being diligent), I write instead. I like to sleep eight hours a night, but I can get by on six, so I sacrifice a couple of hours to write. You get up earlier. You go to bed later. You regretfully say “no” to drinks with friends sometimes. You carve out the time.

Now, I like a good six-hour stretch to write in, but it’s tough to get those. Occasionally I work out a deal with my wife where she’ll watch the kid for a while and give me time to work in exchange for some reciprocal free time. But more often I’m writing in snatches and grabs and stolen moments. (Right now? My kid is behind me playing happily, and I’m just hoping I get to the end of this before he toddles over and demands attention. And if I don’t, well, I’ll finish this later.) But the thing is, pages accrue. They pile up. A little at a time, over a long enough period, can add up to a lot. Being a novelist is a long-term game. You probably do have the time.

You just have to be willing to give up whatever that time is currently filled with.


Things I hate – Synopses

Novel synopses. Hate them.

This morning I’ve been working on a detailed chapter outline for a new book I’m trying to sell, so I’ve been drinking a glass of fresh squeezed hatred for breakfast.

A synopsis has to prove that you’ve figured out your plot from front to back, with all the major parts in the middle. It proves you’ve got your story logic in place, that your major characters experience complete arcs, and that the ending proceeds naturally from that which came before. What’s annoying about this is that you might not have figured all this stuff out yet, so you either have to fake it, or, even worse, figure it out.

But the really unfair thing about a synopsis is that the form makes it very difficult to engage your best tools, like snappy dialog, pacing, and surprise. The lushness or muscularity of your prose can’t be employed in its natural environs. Yet the writing in a synopsis still has to be good. It has to suggest that you’re the kind of writer who can do dialog and pacing and lushness and muscularity. It’s kind of like trying to make an audience laugh by summarizing jokes rather than telling them.

After the cut you’ll find a portion of my synopsis for NORSE CODE. I’m not providing it as an example to follow. Due to various circumstances, it was written after I sold the book, so I can’t point to it as something that contributed to making a sale. But hopefully it’s enough to demonstrate what I was shooting for. If you’ve got links to good synopsis examples online, please do link to them in comments.

Obligatory warning: CONTAINS SPOILERS

Continue reading ‘Things I hate – Synopses’


Diana’s sunday quickie–fave fantasy character

I’ve been mulling over this one all day (and I’ve been traveling most of the day, so I’ve far too much time to do nothing but think!) and I’ve been having an awful time pinning a favorite down. I thought briefly of shocking the sensibilities of the purist SF/F fans and naming Eve Dallas from J.D. Robb’s In Death books as my favorite character, but then I remembered that it was supposed to be fantasy, and those books barely even give a passing nod to science fiction, so probably don’t qualify. (Though she is an awesome character, and I’m quite addicted to the series!)

Unfortunately, I just don’t think I can pin it down to one particular character that I ❤ more than any other. So, I’m going to cheat:

My fave fantasy character is the entire modern kick-ass heroine archetype that has become so popular in urban fantasy and paranormal romance.  Even when the kick-assiness is way over the top, I still love to read it because it’s just so awesome to see female characters who are comfortable with being strong and capable.

Tough Chicks Rock!


Nora’s Sunday Quickie: Fave Fantasy Chara

So this week’s Sunday Quickie challenge is to mention our favorite character from recent fantasy, and why we ❤ them so.

Mine is Temeraire. Temeraire isn’t human; he’s a dragon, from Naomi Novik’s awesome alternate-history fantasy series, starting with His Majesty’s Dragon. The story — a deliberate pastiche of Patrick O’Brian’s novels — is set in a world in which, for whatever reason, huge dragons exist alongside humanity in every corner of the globe, serving as military force and Great Leveler between societies which, in our world, were imbalanced by technology, etc. The dragons, however, are fully as intelligent as human beings, and as the story follows young Temeraire from hatching to adulthood, he rightly begins to question why he and his fellow dragons are treated like chattel. The story tackles this and other complex questions, which makes the series far richer and more engaging than just any old romp with dragons.

But it’s Temeraire’s personality that keeps me reading, I have to admit. His devotion to Laurence — his human captain and best friend — his saucy attitude towards the idiots in charge of Britain’s military, his cleverness and lust for learning… how can I not love him? He goes mad over books. I go mad over books! He loves shiny jewels and fine architecture! So do I! He loves advanced theoretical math! Um. Well. I like algebra and geometry? Anyway, clearly we’re soulmates!

(This was a tossup, I should note, between Temeraire and Iskierka.)


Greg’s Sunday quickie – Characters

I’ll forgive a writer many things, but if I don’t get along with their protagonist, it’s over. It’s kind of like embarking on a long road trip with a stranger. Say we start out on Santa Monica Beach and head east. If we’ve reached Las Vegas and they’ve got their feet on the dashboard, picking their toes while singing along with Toby Keith, I’m booting them out in front of Treasure Island.

I always hope I’ll love the protagonist. I hope the way they approach problems makes sense to me. Or surprises me, and not because I’m surprised at how stupid they are. They don’t have to be perfect people, but they have to have enough admirable qualities that I won’t want to impale them on a cactus by the time we hit the Grand Canyon.

I recently made the acquaintance of Mau, the only survivor of a devastating tidal wave in Terry Pratchett’s Nation.  I came late to Pratchett. Not being a great fan of comic fantasy, I was pleasantly surprised to discover in him a writer who is not only funny, but also humane and wise. Through Mau, Pratchett tells the story of what it might be like if everything you knew and loved were literally swept away, and you had to reassemble your world one piece at a time. You had to learn to survive open seas. You had to figure out how to overcome the cruel indifference of nature and the unnecessary evil of other people. You had to rediscover not just what you believed, but what deserved your belief.

Watching Mau courageously face these challenges was a pleasure. I liked him, and I’m glad we met.