Friday, December 11, 2015

Your own Old Habits

The Old Habits giveaway has ended; congratulations to Debee Pfaff and Hayley Shaver!  I'll try to get the books in the mail by the end of the month.

This went so well that I'm going to be doing it with my other two books as well.

Old Habits is a fantasy novel, and two winners receive a signed print copy of the book: 

A fortune in lost gems. 

A man on the run from his brothers. 

A dread secret in Castle Dornica. 

Stoce grew up alone on the tough streets of Farport to become an exceptional street thief, but nothing in his life has prepared him for this. Hired for a simple theft, Stoce is now on the run from The Brotherhood. Stalked by deadly assassins in a strange land, Stoce must face an archmage, soldiers, and a host of guards to find the gems he lost. 

But what treacherous plot is unfolding in the castle as he searches, and how does the annoyingly noble paladin Judic fit into this conspiracy? Facing impossible odds and outmatched by dark magic and deadly traps, Stoce uses his stealth and skills to search, to survive, and perhaps to find an even greater treasure.

Friday, December 4, 2015

If You Ever Think You Can't Write

Your mom won't keep us apart
If you have never seen the Peter Jackson film Heavenly Creatures, it is truly disturbing and stirring.  The tale is about two teenage girls in New Zealand who kill one's mother because they can't stand her moving the girl away so they'd be separated.

The girls are amazingly imaginative and feed off each other to create a fascinating dream world involving tales and movie stars and their own creations.  Peter Jackson does a good job with the story.  After murdering the woman, the two girls were caught and sentenced to prison, but because of their youth did not get the death penalty.  In the end, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker were set free from prison after 5 years but they were kept apart and never have seen each other again.

Juliet Marion Hulme was born in 1938 and is still alive.  After helping her friend kill her mom and getting out of jail, she moved to England at the age of 20 and moved between there and America, finally ending up in Scotland.

She began writing novels, primarily mystery books involving a series of different detectives.  All are set in historical periods, such as Victorian England, and have been very well received.  Before she started writing, she changed her name to her step father's to avoid any connection to her murderous past.

Her name is now Anne Perry, and she's one of the most successful mystery authors alive today.  Ann Perry has written almost 50 novels and has won many awards and significant acclaim for her well-written, intelligent stories with fascinating characters with interesting historical detail.  She has sold more than 25,000,000 books total.
So if at some point you feel as if your past, your life, or your troubles prevent you from being able to be a published author... think about Anne Perry.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Patronize Me

Would you like to be my patron?

I'm telling you Poseidon, I'm about to fall out of this thing
In the past, particularly the Renaissance period, the concept of patronage was a pretty important one.  Instead of government grants and payoffs, the artists, musicians, and craftsmen of the day would receive patronage from a richer, more powerful person.  This usually consisted of a stipend as well as room and board which allowed the creator to create without worrying about food or survival.

Most of the really famous, well-known pieces of the day were the result of this patronage system.  The rich patron would become respected and honored for their fine taste and love of the arts, and the creator got to do what they did best and loved.  It was a good system, although many were notoriously bad with deadlines and even wasteful; guys like Benvenuto Cellini spent most of their time partying and chasing women (and dueling) rather than creating, and had to be kept in line by their patrons.

This system went out of fashion after a while, although men like Andrew Carnegie and others did throw huge amounts of money around to funds and grants that would help people in the 20th century.  Today, most of the patronage comes from the government, but there is another way, now.  The 21st century version of Patronage comes in the form of Crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding allows ordinary, not-so-rich people to become patrons of the arts and science, music and craft, by donating small amounts of cash to worthy people.  They receive some small gifts and recognition for their generosity and see the fruits of their patronage see light of day.

The most direct and obvious crowdfunding platform for this modern patronage is Patreon.  Unlike sites such as Kickstarter, this site is ongoing patronage in the truest historical sense.  Patreon allows you to sponsor someone or some ones who seem worthy in your mind for support as long as they produce works through the months and years.

Does anyone else here feel a draft?
Patreon allows you to continue to donate each month or each new product, as the sponsor desires, instead of a single payment.  Donations as small as a dollar a month are allowed, for the more budget-minded, but if a person can get 50 such supporters, that's not bad.  And certainly there's nothing that stops you from treating this like Kickstarter, with a big donation one month, then nothing or significantly less later on.

I've signed up for Patreon, and while its my first effort so I probably am not the slickest package out there, I certainly can use your support.  Please consider dropping a few bucks my way as the year goes by, and I'll be able to use that funding to build Kestrel Arts to a better company.

The money will go for things like advertising, purchasing physical copies of my books for giveaways and sales in local stores, cover art, and so on.  All of this stuff costs more money than I have to offer, which is holding back sales and exposure to my work.  With your help, I can reach out to more people and spread awareness of my writing and art to more potential customers.

So if you like what you've read, found enjoyment with the gaming products I've written, and want to see more, please do consider being my patron!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Armored Writing

Ah, the knight in shining armor, or the future warrior in his battle suit.  If you write, chances are you're going to write about armor of some kind.  The most obvious setting is fantasy or science fiction, but any historical piece may have armor, and the military still uses body armor to this day.  Those helmets aren't for show.

Often, armor is treated as a set of clothing, something you throw on and go out to meet the world.  People are portrayed as sleeping in their armor, moving about without noticing it, never maintaining or caring about it, and so on.  Now, if you're going to write a very romanticized, fantastical version of a story, that can happen - its just assumed to be part of the setting.  But if you want a believable, plausible setting, you're going to have to do things a bit differently.

The first thing to understand is that armor is neither comfortable, nor easy to wear.  Even the most modern, top of the line, best designed, and high tech armor still is heavy and awkward.  Armor is a trade off between weight/discomfort and safety/protection.  It will keep you safer at a cost, but the cost is always there.  Think of it in terms of a coat.  Without the coat, you're colder.  With the coat, you're bulkier, heavier, and sometimes get too hot.

In Vietnam, a lot of soldiers died because they refused to wear that helmet.  Why?  Because when the temperature is over 100 Fahrenheit and the humidity is in the 90% range, everything is miserable, but the hat was especially so.  So was that flack jacket body armor they had.  And there were a lot of casualties because of it.

The further you back in time, the more pronounced this becomes.  As recently as the early 20th century, fabrics we take for granted and wear regularly did not exist.  Baseball players wore wool outfits in the blazing heat of summer of 1939 not because they liked it, but because that was the best they could get.  So if you're going to be historical, then you're going to have to work with the restrictions and materials available at the time.

So why the squire?  Well unlike video games, you can't actually carry 12 weapons so the squire handles that (usually on another horse or a cart), and it takes a while to put all that plate on so its good to have help.  Plus, the squire was a manservant, to deal with problems like cleaning up messes, making beds, packing and unpacking, and so on.  Most squires were also knights-in-training, trying to learn the job so they could be one when they grew up.

And weight is just one issue.  Consider a moment; this helmet is a very high tech, very protective knight's helm from the medieval period:
 Massive protection, very difficult to get any sort of hit in on something like that.  But what can you see from inside there?  Something like this:
Now, you can get used to that, but its still going to be very limiting and claustrophobic.  The more visibility you get, the more face is exposed, and especially eyesAll helmets restrict vision to some degree, even if its a slight distortion from the see-through portion or a bit above where the top overhangs.  That's just a price you pay to survive.   Of course if you are very skilled and experienced you can get used to it and learn to work with the limitations, but always it will be limited.

So its not unreasonable that someone could miss something like a bad guy to his side or moving around him because of the helmet they're wearing.

Now, I've been emphasizing the weight and restriction of armor, but I want to make sure that I am not misunderstood.  Some people take this way too far, making knights in full plate unable to stand back up, get on a horse, etc.  The fact is, that plate armor was designed to be as flexible and useful as possible.  A full suit of plate armor wears around 50 pounds, whereas jousting armor would weigh over 100 pounds.  but that is distributed around your body in a way designed to make it sit well and not feel as heavy.

Where did this come from?  Well a lot of it probably can be laid at the feet of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court which asserted satirically the suits were so heavy you had to use a crane to seat them.  This really took hold but even 100 pounds isn't all that heavy worn as a suit.

Part of the reason people get the idea that heavy plate was nearly immobile was because most of the surviving armor we see and people used to study was for jousting and the tournament.  Those suits were so heavy and so huge that they literally could be difficult to stand up and move in.  Those suits were ridiculously thick and heavy, and did not come designed to allow mobility and long use.

The reason is simple: if you are jousting, you don't need to move around much.  The entire point is to sit on your horse and take a hit, so the armor was ridiculously heavy and thick, and not very mobile.  But nobody wears that in real combat, because its designed for one purpose. 

Think of that somewhat like a dragster vs a street sports car.  Both are fast, both are designed to drive, but the dragster is extremely fast and designed to do only one thing: go straight as quickly as possible.  Your Lamborghini is designed to go around corners, stop quickly, drive smoothly, and so on.  Its not as fast because it has a different purpose; its meant to go on roads and travel long distances.  Claiming all cars are like the dragster is to not understand its purpose.

Real combat plate armor was well articulated and while heavy was not as heavy as the jousting stuff.  Here's some video of people wearing period-accurate real armor using metal available at the time:

As you can see, people are significantly more mobile than often they are portrayed.  It weighs you down, its heavy and restrictive, but you're still able to act and move well in it.  And a trained warrior would build up muscles and skills that let them function even more effectively.  It will be tiring, necessarily, but endurance can be built up.

The truth is, in a good suit of armor, you can run, dodge, dance, duck, crawl, and leap over things.  I've seen footage of a man leaping over a fence, then vaulting onto the back of their horse from behind.  He was tired, but it could be done.   As you can see in the video, people are cartwheeling, wrestling, etc.  It was like a (heavy) skin, designed to allow flexibility and mobility.

Now, another thing you might have noticed is the sound.  People wearing and fighting in armor sound like an earthquake in a kitchen.  All that metal is tied down as best you can, but it still rattles about and is absolutely noisy, even when walking around.  Even chain mail makes a fair amount of noise as you move, as does leather (squeak squeak).  So you're not likely to sneak up on anyone in this stuff.

As a practical concern, its worth considering how you fought someone in armor.  Obviously the point of a suit of armor is to allow someone to stand and fight enemies with melee weapons such as swords or axes and suffer little or no damage.  Ideally, a suit of armor will make you invulnerable to the usually poorly trained and lightly-armored (if any armor) peasants and footmen.

Ideally.  However, armor did not make you invulnerable, and a good hard hit will transmit energy through the metal to your body beneath, so you're going to end up bruised and banged about.  Put even a modern motorcycle helmet on your head and let someone knock on it and feel how loud that is up against your ears and enclosed.  While people would wear a layer of padding beneath their helmet, its not nearly as good as modern foam and other materials, and frankly it would ring your bell to get hit in the head, even if you didn't suffer any significant physical damage.

Armor is designed to not present any flesh to the enemy.  Unfortunately, armor that is completely enclosed is also immobile, so some level of flexibility had to be built in, which means... gaps.

Some parts were almost completely enclosed, such a helmet where mobility was not an issue (visibility, as I noted above, is another matter).  This is an example (show piece for Henry II) which demonstrates how closely it closes up.  You can see the plates overlap and close together so that there are no gaps, but more importantly look closely at how they overlap.
Medieval designers learned that if you had the overlaps facing forward, a blade would slide along the armor and into the gap, and hence into the face of the occupant.  this way, an attacker even if they come from behind will not hit the target's face even if they slip something between the gaps.

But not all armor can be made that way, and some of it even was only on one side, especially on the legs.  A knight was typically mounted; they are cavalry.  Mounted warriors need not wear armor where they are touching the horse, and indeed would prefer not to, since its hard on the horse and uncomfortable on the rider.  So the legs would have heavy armor on one side and cloth or light armor on the back.

Even full suits had gaps at the joints, in order to allow mobility and flexibility.  The armor could not grind or ram up against its self or you wouldn't move around well (and do somersaults, etc as shown above).  And that means that fighting a knight was about either wearing them down until they are too tired to protect themselves... or hitting them where their armor was weakest.

Now, its not like you are naked under a suit of armor.  A full suit of real plate was a series of layers, from a sort of longjohns suit of underwear to a layer of padded armor to protect against impact, to sometimes even a layer of chainmail at least at joints, and then the plates on top.  That means no part was completely exposed, but it didn't get the full benefit of those heavy metal plates.  

In really well-fitted armor, the gaps were minimal: between the legs (usually covered by a skirt of articulated plates), under the arms, etc.  A good suit of armor was tailored literally for the buyer, built around their body to fit smoothly. and neatly.  Areas of particular vulnerability (knees, for example) would be given extra protection with small plates.  Straps and joints were inside or riveted and bolted so they were not easily targeted.

A warrior would aim for joints, overlaps, and gaps if possible because not only are you doing minimal damage to someone in a suit like this, but you're damaging your weapon.  Those swords are very nice looking, but they have the same kind of edge as your kitchen knife.  I wouldn't recommend doing so, but swing that chef's knife against the side of a soup can a few times as hard as you can and see how well it cuts after that.  The damage is visible.

And against any edges, such as plates of armor, there will be chipping and even shattering of hard steel, which destroys your sword.  Will the guy in the armor feel it?  Absolutely, but he'll feel impact, not slicing or stabbing damage, and your weapon is being destroyed.

I'm not going to say much about period armor and keeping it accurate. If you are writing a historical novel, you're going to want to make sure you're more careful than, say, the TV show Vikings, about what kind of armor and equipment the combatants carry so you don't mix time periods, but generally speaking fantasy is pretty loose about this sort of thing.

One small tip to consider: there is no historical support for the "studded leather" armor.  You cannot find a single example of it in actual armor.  The terms seems to have come from images that showed armor with rivets or pieces of metal apparently on them, but what that was probably showing was brigandine: a layer of metal plates or rings sewn or riveted between leather.  All that shows on the outside are the connections, which looks like studding, but that would provide no actual armor benefit on its own other than decoration.

So, if you write your armor, try to keep it reasonable and plausible, using armor the way it was used in the past - its not just another shirt, but its not a horrendous weight you need a crane to get up while wearing.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Home page sweet home page

In case you missed it, the home page of my writings, art, and little publishing company Kestrel Arts may be found online.  There you will find many gaming supplements, news and information on upcoming projects, links, art samples, and much more!

As I work on publicity and projects such as giveaways and promotions, that will be the best place to stay in touch and see what's going on.  Kestrel Arts has a constant update of anything I'm working on as well as special freebies like characters sheets to characters I've written, art from books, and so on.  The site is constantly under progress as I add and shift things around, so visit often and see what's going on.

Also, Kestrel Arts can be found on Facebook - give us a like and check out the stuff there, too!

And finally, you can find me on Twitter and Goodreads as well.  I write a few reviews a week and stay busy on Twitter daily.

Keep in touch, I'll be glad to meet you online!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Properly Building Your Synopsis

What do you mean, I have to SELL it now??
One of the most challenging parts of writing has nothing to do with the actual story.  You can finish your novel up and get it just right, but then the real work begins.  Increasingly, the burden of sales and publicity is on the shoulders of the author, even when working through an established, traditional publishing company.

And one of the most difficult tasks is coming up with that perfect summary, that synopsis, that blurb that will compel readers, draw attention, generate sales, attract that agent, win that publishing contract.  If you get it right, you can send your synopsis to a reviewer and intrigue them.  Get it wrong, and you lose sales.

The problem is, writing a synopsis is very different from writing a book.  You can be a master at writing your novel, an accomplished, skilled author, and be terrible at writing a blurb.  Its two different sets of skills.  Writing fiction is storytelling and a host of specific targeted skills such as grammar, plotting, pacing, and so on.  Writing a synopsis is sales with its own specific targeted skills.

There is some crossover, of course.  Command of the language and the ability to use words in a compelling an interesting manner works in all writing.  But where you have hundreds of pages to tell a story, you have a matter of a few letters to get that synopsis right.

There are some distinctions here.  A synopsis is different from a pitch, both of which are distinct from a blurb.  Each is very similar in purpose in tone, though.
  • Synopsis is the longest of the three, and is a short summary of the entire work.
  • Blurb is the back of a book, a short piece meant to attract interest and sales.
  • Pitch is the shortest of the three, a quick idea or simple concept meant to grab attention.
Yet all three are essentially the same beast in one sense: they're all sales tools.  The Pitch is what you use when someone asks "what's your book about" or trying to grab an agent, publisher, producer, or customer's attention immediately.  The Synopsis is the long form you lay out the work in for a reviewer or agent. Yet ultimately its about landing that sale, getting your book in their hands in a positive manner.

So writing a great synopsis, blurb, or pitch is a matter of learning skills entirely different than your literature classes or experience writing have ever taught you.   Thankfully there are some great online resources you can use to help craft your synopsis, blurb, or pitch.

If I wanted to tell my story in one page,
I wouldn't have written the other 300!

The Synopsis is the longest and easiest of these three to craft for the average author.  You have more text, usually a full page, to finish the job.  You have more flexibility because the intent is to tell the whole story.  You'll have 500-600 words rather than 150-200 or even fewer for the other formats.

Your synopsis should always be written in third person, no matter what the rest of the novel is.  Tell it as a news story, not a narrative.

A Synopsis is like a news story; it has who, what, where, when, why, and how.  A quick tool to help envision this is offered by Graeme Shimmin:
In a (SETTING) a (PROTAGONIST) has a (PROBLEM) (caused by an ANTAGONIST) and (faces CONFLICT) as they try to (achieve a GOAL).
Look this over and consider how it works for your story.  The principle is very universal for  all genre types of fiction.  If you can fill that out, you have the basic skeleton of your synopsis already done.  In the synopsis, avoid the lurid, over the top prose the other two types will need.  You want it clean and simple with as few adverbs and adjectives as possible.  Its not a lush, green, vibrant jungle, its just a jungle.

Tell all of the story, all of the main, specific parts.  No description, just a news story of your book.  The synopsis is meant not to sell to a customer, but to a publisher or agent, a director or producer.  They are not consumers of your book, but of the property to sell it for you.  They need to know it all, so tell the whole plot, without specific detail.  But leave out the subplots.  Just the facts, ma'am, the bare bones.

Leave out characters you don't absolutely need to tell the story.  The name of the guy that sold your hero a horse is irrelevant.  The name of your hero's horse might be important. 

A blurb is much shorter, with only about 150 words to work with.  The blurb is your sales copy, its the bit on the back of your paperback that people pick up and you have to reach win before they get to the bottom of the book.  Blurbs are fast and furious and exciting!

At Savvy Book Marketer, Joanne Penn shares some of her tips for writing a blurb.  I recommend reading the whole article, but she in essence has several tips:
  1. Hint at the plot, but don't give too much away: "Secret experiment. Tiny island. Big mistake."
  2. Use words that evoke images and resonate with readers of the genre: "ancient monastery"; "A buried Egyptian temple. A secret kept for 6000 years."
  3. Name and characterize main characters:  "TV news reporter Gracie Logan. Matt Sherwood, reformed car thief"
  4. Idea of setting: “from the Roman Coliseum to the icy peaks of Norway, from the ruins of medieval abbeys to the lost tombs of Celtic kings”
  5. A hint of mystery: "Is the sign real?  Is God talking to us?"
  6. Hyperbole: oversell, exaggerate, be exciting
Your blurb is not the whole story, but some high points to make the reader want more, just enough to get them excited like a good movie trailer, but not so much they know it all, like a bad movie trailer.  For me, I find it useful to think of the entire blurb being read by a movie trailer voiceover, to hear that tone and that style in the writing.

Drill your listener right between the eyes
A pitch is even tighter and quicker.  A pitch is often described in terms of being something you can finish between the time elevator doors close and the car reaches the destination floor.  Your pitch should sell in that much time, while you have a captive audience.  Any longer and attention starts to wander.  think of a pitch as a Tweet: 150 characters, straight to the point.

The purpose of the pitch is to hook someone, to grab interest, not tell them about the entire book.  You're just trying to grab the target fast and hard.  Cliff Daigle suggests a few versions of the pitch:
  • Hollywood style - Twilight meets Harry Potter; The sorcerer's apprentice from hell, etc.
  • The "Save the Cat" style - a combination of genre, compelling mental image, ironic twist, and great title.  Examples he gives are: "A cop visits his estranged wife when her office building is taken over by terrorists" - Die Hard; and "A business hires a hooker for a weekend date and falls in love" - Pretty Woman.
  • Conflict - focus on who the character is, what their goal is, and what's stopping them from getting it.
Ultimately the pitch is about speed and interest.  Something very tight, fast, and interesting.  Once you have them intrigued, you can move into the blurb or synopsis and finish the sale.  But the pitch is to get them exciting and interested right away.

Of course, to do any of these, you need a finished work.  This is the stage you start once you have a finished product, a complete and edited book.  Its okay to start tossing around the ideas right away, but only once its finished can you actually start to build the perfect blurb.

With these tools, you can begin to craft a sales pitch, a perfect synopsis that will sell your book.  Because that's what all of them are about, getting that person to part with their dollars and gain a book.  But what do they look like?

Again, Grame Shimmin offers a few synopses of famous and familiar stories such as Casino Royale.  They are quite long and I won't copy it all here, but go take a look at how he does the job.

Here's a blurb for Casino Royale (most recent film version):
British Spy James Bond goes on his first ever mission armed with a license to kill. His target: Le Chiffre, a banker to the world's terrorists. Le Chiffre is participating in a poker game at Montenegro, where he must win back terrorist funds he poorly invested.

Bond, along with fellow spy Vesper Lynd, enters the tournament to prevent Le Chiffre from winning so he must turn to MI6 for help.  This Texas Hold'Em game is played for the highest of stakes, but even if Bond defeats Le Chiffre, will he and Vesper Lynd survive?
And here is the Pitch: 
Secret Agent James Bond joins a high stakes card game where death is the final chip to bankrupt his enemy, but who can he trust?
Each one is tighter and more concise, telling less and selling more.  And that's the key.  Armed with these tools, you can build your Synopsis, Blurb, and Pitch to hook your audience, pull them in, and sell your book.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Life Unworthy Gains Attention

So far I've gotten two solid reviews on Life Unworthy, the latest a five-star cheer from
Great history intertwined with regional monster mythology. Christopher obviously worked hard to get the history correct and if only there were Nazi fighting werewolves in Europe...
I'm glad people are enjoying and recognizing the hard work I put into historical accuracy, that means a lot to me.  I think I spent at least as many hours researching as I did writing.

You can find Life Unworthy in any online bookstore, and in print, for more info check out my website!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Paragraph and You

Sometimes the most basic and fundamental things can trip up a writer.  The truth is, until you can master the written language and proper speech, you cannot be an author.  It doesn't matter how great your ideas are or how wonderful you are at description, all the talent in the world will fail you if you cannot properly communicate.

Consider this verbatim paragraph from an actual published book which I will not name:
The night sounds were getting louder as the night world was waking to the early evening.Something was not right and I felt a warning in me, one of my new senses that I got from my awakening. "I'm feeling something." I said with an uneasy tone and W--- looked concerned. "
Children of the night, shut up!
Being unable to properly write makes your story break down and distracts readers from what you are writing.  You lose "immersion" - that almost magical effect where the reader loses awareness that they are reading and simply take in the story, almost becoming a part of it.

Further, it can confuse readers so that they are unable to understand what you are saying, where the story is going, who is saying what, and what is going on.  In other words: you aren't telling your story, you aren't doing it justice.  So you have to learn the very basics to get the job done right.  This isn't some cruel imposition or tyrannical imprisonment of your talent.  Its communication basics.  If you cannot communicate, you cannot tell a story.

Paragraphs are more than simply breaks in your text, they are how you as an author control the pacing and feeling in your readers.  Long, complex sentences with many concepts and related themes chained together using various rhetorical devices such as colons, semi colons, and commas, can slow your reader's momentum and cause them to pay closer attention.  Short, powerful ones read fast, they pop!   Similarly, long paragraphs denote an extended period of time, while short ones move the book along rapidly and rush the reader down the page.

Open any book.  Pick a page with descriptive and narrative paragraphs that take up a page.  Compare it to a page of dialog.  See how fast that dialog rips along?  The page takes no time to read.  But that narrative, that takes time, slows the reader, and makes them think.  This is the difference between Robert B. Parker's Spenser books and the ones by Ace Atkins.

This allows you to control the pace of your book in a way almost nothing else will, and as a result can control the emotions and sense of the story in the way movies can with frenetic action vs quiet scenes, or music can with clashing thunderous explosions of tones and soothing slow, melodic ones.

Pooh and his smackerel
The easiest form of good "paragraphing" is with dialog.  Each character should have their own paragraph when they speak.  This device clearly separates each character and makes it clearer who is speaking.  For example, from The House at Pooh Corner:
"Hallo, Piglet," he said. "I thought you were out." "No," said Piglet, "it's you who were out, Pooh."  "So it was," said Pooh. "I knew one of us was."  He looked up at his clock, which had stopped at five minutes to eleven some weeks ago.  "Nearly eleven o'clock," said Pooh happily. "You're just in time for a little smackerel of something," and he put his head into the cupboard. "And then we'll go out, Piglet, and sing my song to Eeyore." "Which song, Pooh?" "The one we're going to sing to Eeyore," explained Pooh. 
That's all in one block of text and its a bit difficult to understand when one character's dialog stops and another begins.  In addition, its difficult to read and readers will tend to skim things that are too challenging to read.
Properly, this paragraph reads:
      "Hallo, Piglet," he said. "I thought you were out."
      "No," said Piglet, "it's you who were out, Pooh."
      "So it was," said Pooh. "I knew one of us was."
      He looked up at his clock, which had stopped at five minutes to eleven some weeks ago.
      "Nearly eleven o'clock," said Pooh happily. "You're just in time for a little smackerel of something," and he put his head into the cupboard. "And then we'll go out, Piglet, and sing my song to Eeyore."
      "Which song, Pooh?"
      "The one we're going to sing to Eeyore," explained Pooh.
Now its not only clean and easy to read, but its clear who is speaking and when.  This use of paragraphs is a quick simple way of demonstrating the power of the device and how it can make your writing work for you.

Paragraphs can also be used to separate characters and actions.  This way, you can easily distinguish between who is doing what with a simple paragraph break.  Take this portion from The Adventure of the Speckled Band:
     I took out my revolver and laid it on the corner of the table.  Holmes had brought up a long thin cane, and this he placed upon the bed beside him.  By it he laid the box of matches and the stump of a candle. Then he turned down the lamp, and we were left in darkness. How shall I ever forget that dreadful vigil?  I could not hear a sound, not even the drawing of a breath,  and yet I knew that my companion sat open-eyed,  within a few feet of me,  in the same state of nervous tension in which I was myself. The shutters cut off the least ray of light, and we waited in absolute darkness. From outside came the occasional cry of a night-bird, and once at our very window a long drawn catlike whine, which told us that the cheetah was indeed at liberty. Far away we could hear the deep tones of the parish clock, which boomed out every quarter of an hour. How long they seemed, those quarters! Twelve struck, and one and two and three, and still we sat waiting silently for whatever might befall.
Holmes tired of Watson's rambling
Again, this huge block of text rambles on and actions are thrown together into a single section of text.  When properly divided, you can see that not only are the actions and behavior of each character more distinct, but the pacing and mood becomes more evident:
     I took out my revolver and laid it on the corner of the table.
     Holmes had brought up a long thin cane, and this he placed upon the bed beside him.   By it he laid the box of matches and the stump of a candle. Then he turned down the lamp, and we were left in darkness.
     How shall I ever forget that dreadful vigil?  I could not hear a sound, not even the drawing of a breath,  and yet I knew that my companion sat open-eyed,  within a few feet of me,  in the same state of nervous tension in which I was myself. The shutters cut off the least ray of light, and we waited in absolute darkness.
     From outside came the occasional cry of a night-bird, and once at our very window a long drawn catlike whine, which told us that the cheetah was indeed at liberty. Far away we could hear the deep tones of the parish clock, which boomed out every quarter of an hour. How long they seemed, those quarters! Twelve struck, and one and two and three, and still we sat waiting silently for whatever might befall.
 Notice here how the separation by these paragraphs not only helps distinguish actions between characters, but it also helps establish pacing and mood.  The first two paragraphs are simple statements of action, short and two the point, with simple description.  Then comes two paragraphs - longer, more detailed and wordy - which build tension and suspense, helping carry the reader along with the sounds and feelings of that wait in the darkness.

Using paragraphs this way steers readers so they know what is going on and helps to shape their impressions and feelings. Note that it isn't necessary to always separate actions with paragraphs, but it is a useful device to consider.

Without getting into technical detail and jargon, look at this paragraph with a mix of different events:
    She shook head. She was a difficult woman to impress, and, up to now, his skill sets in this world hadn’t been of a quality that measured up. But, right now, he couldn’t help feeling she was pleased with him. Even more than that, she seemed to be reaching out to him for something. He eyed her, then spoke before he could give himself time to think. “Your life didn’t exactly turn out the way you thought it would, did it?"
See how this is all one section?  But lots of different things are going on here.  The writer of this article breaks down the paragraph with [bracketed identifiers] to make things more clear:
    She shook head. [Action/Cause]
    She was a difficult woman to impress, and, up to now, his skill sets in this world hadn’t been of a quality that measured up. But, right now, he couldn’t help feeling she was pleased with him. Even more than that, she seemed to be reaching out to him for something. [Thought]
    He eyed her, then spoke before he could give himself time to think. [Action] “Your life didn’t exactly turn out the way you thought it would, did it?” [Speech]
 See how breaking these actions up into separate parts helps make clear the differences?  By dividing each up with paragraph breaks (or quotes) the writer is able to distinguish between the different parts more clearly.

A final thought is that you can use a paragraph to create emphasis and focus on something that might otherwise be blended into the story.  For example, this from my second novel Old Habits:
    I hung there for a moment.  My feet dangled in the space, which was disconcerting.  I’d expected boxes or shelves or something, but I felt nothing.  The crack above me didn’t show much except dusty, cobwebbed beams and the ceiling in a brief swatch of light.  I let my eyes get used to the darkness, looking down away from the light above.  I was not much taller than a young teen, so I might be just dangling a foot or two above the floor.  But what was on the floor?  And was it a standard room or taller?
    As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I saw shapes.  It looked like there were oblong boxes on the floor, flat and narrow.  The room was not very tall and from what little I could make out, my feet were inches above one of the boxes.  The lid was off the box.  Inside it lay something like sticks or candles.  Or bones.  I looked carefully at the boxes.
    They were coffins.
 Running that final line together with the second paragraph would not make it stand out and have as much impact as it does on its own.  Using a paragraph break judiciously in this manner can have the same effect as an actor pausing before saying the final line.
Of course, you can always overdo this and it becomes a running joke.

You only get one shot from readers.  Unless they are close friends or family - and sometimes even if they are - readers will give up rapidly on a book.  There are millions of books out there.  Hundreds are published every week.  Your book has to compete with all that in terms of attention from readers, and if you annoy, confuse, or disgust them, then readers will put your book down, and worse, not give you another chance.

You need to get it right, and get it right the first time, because chances are you won't get a second time with readers.  And if you get it wrong enough, they'll let the world know in reviews.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Big Fight Scene, pt 4 - Epic Combat

quit pooping on the knights
The problem with writing combat is that tips you read and techniques you learn to use well might work perfectly in one type of combat and be useless in another.  What works well for your WW2 book might be useless in a battle like the Narnia war in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with griffons and centaurs vs minotaurs and wolves.  The time period, forces involved, magic vs technology, size of forces, and more all will change the entire battle.

For example; what worked well in the War of the Roses is worthless in WW2: you can't hide in a castle and sally forth to attack and harass, you'll just get bombed into oblivion and your castle parachuted into.  If magic can call lightning from the sky and teleport troops around, then those trenches aren't going to be very useful.

However, there are techniques, themes, and ideas that hold true for all mass combat writing which can be applied to any time period or type or battle.  These principles are about how you write rather than specific tactical details; those are largely up to your imagination, historical precedent, and the forces and abilities at hand.

First off, no matter what you are writing, there are three basic rules or concepts you always have to keep in mind.
1) Does this move the plot along?
2) Does this develop characters?
3) Does this help set the stage and describe the setting?
The truth is, what situation you are writing or what setting it is placed, all of your writing should move the story toward these ends.  If you are writing just because this seemed badass in your head and was interesting to write, you are going to start boring or annoying readers.  They aren't reading to see how cool you are, they are reading because of the story.

If what you write does not serve those three ends, no matter what it is, then you will almost certainly need to rethink what you are doing.  Writing combat is no different.  Those huge armies clashing will have plenty to describe and explain, but all of the fighting and action should move the plot along, develop characters, and describe your setting.

That means when the Rohirrim charged at the vast orc army in the plains of Pellinor in The Return of the King, it wasn't just a really cool image or scene (although it truly was, well handled in the film).  It was showing the courage of those men, the culture of the Rohirrim, the struggle of good vs evil, and giving hope to Pippin and his friends in the city of Gondor.  It showed that the orcs were not invincible and unstoppable, and it forced the Nazgul leader onto the battlefield to be killed by Éowyn.

Which brings us to the next point.  That clip shows a key moment in the battle that is easy to miss.  There are hundreds of thousands of combatants on a field miles wide using a wide variety of weapons.  But Tolkien (and Peter Jackson) takes time to focus on Éowyn and Meriodoc (Merry).  They're scared.  They are desperate.  But they are there to help their friends, at any cost.  They are there to give the forces inside the city of Minas Tirith, and more importantly, the pair of Sam and Frodo inside Mordor a chance to succeed.

Watch how Éowyn flinches away as the king rides by; she did so to hide her face; he ordered her to stay home but she dressed as a soldier to join the fight.  Her reasons are complex, but you can see her react trying to stay there, but fear and concern written all over her.

Now, that enormous charge is so glorious its easy to forget details like that, but that's what makes it a story instead of just a description of events.  The book is about its characters, so zoom in and look at them.  Why are they there?  What are they doing?  How do they feel?  Get inside some people there, even if they are nameless or are minor bit characters in the army.  Then your reader cares about what happens, turning it into a meaningful story instead of just a depiction of some activity.  See the reaction of those orcs as they realize there's no stopping this charge, no matter what they do?  That helps the reader feel the triumph and hope of the charge.

Don't forget the enemy, its useful to be inside both sides of a war, to show what is going on, what they are feeling and thinking, what they hope to do, and how its going for the enemy, too.

Ray Barboni's goal is to not eject the magazine when he points his pistol
Give your characters goals.  Even if the goal is something minor - the army wants to defend this place, Bob wants to get a luger from a German officer, Ilias the elf wants to prove his courage, whatever- the people there have to have a reason and a goal to work toward.  If the only goal is "two badass armies fight" then there's not only nothing at stake, its meaningless to the story.  Who cares?  Even if the armies are really well-crafted and unique, it doesn't matter to readers unless you make it matter, by giving everyone there tangible, relatable goals and characters you can get inside of to care about.

And the goals change over time.  The army might start wanting to capture that castle, but find its self fighting a defensive battle where they hope only to hold their ground, then things get so bad that they only hope to survive.  Characters will have multiple goals.  The general seeks to win the war, yes, but he also seeks to protect his men, capture this territory, and beat his rival general to a destination so he gets all the glory.  Just because a huge battle is taking place doesn't mean those goals aren't around and cannot be exploited.

Fights vary in pacing, they aren't all slow or fast.  One thing any serviceman that's seen active duty will tell you is that its mostly sitting around waiting, bored, then short moments of terrifying adrenaline-driven activity.  Some of the most ghastly, famous battles of the world, such as the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge, included moments of furious death and activity, and moments of waiting.

Sneaking in was easier with the hand of God as a distraction
Your writing should reflect the momentum and pacing of these events.  When the troops are sneaking through the reeds to reach the secret entrance into Babylon through the sewers, the writing should build suspense, describe events, and feel like the steady slow movement.  But when the fighting starts, it should be quick, powerful, and to the point.

You can emphasize pacing with the language you use.  For a frenetic, desperate scene, you want things fast and direct.  Avoid long description, keep your language simple and to the point, and keep sentences short, like gunshots.  When you want to slow things down, add in more description, make the sentences a bit longer, take time to unfold the situation.

If you are moving huge armies around a battlefield, you're going to have to know how it all looks, moves, and behaves as you write.  Don't just wing it, or unless you are supernaturally gifted, you'll end up with conflicting actions by troops, forgotten elements, and illogical actions.  Remember that left wing that Éomer controlled?  If it shows up on the right, readers are going to need to know how and why it got there, and what's going on where it should have been.  Just saying "hey I forgot" will not make anyone happy.

Whether this means drawing things out as a map, using miniatures to represent the battle (whether figures or Skittles on your table), or using an existing battle to base your scene on - something many, many writers have done in the past - make sure you have a clear visual concept of how things move and are placed.  This will not only help you keep things straight, but can often give you ideas on what to do, based on the terrain and how the troops move.  See those reinforcements over there?  The way things are laid out, there's a gap they could circle around into - is that a trap, or just weak tactics by the opponent?

Clearly visualizing your battle will also make it easier for you to help your reader visualize it, through description and explanation.  And when your reader understand what you are saying and doing with your story, then you have a happy reader.

Never let everything work out exactly as planned.  Never.  There isn't a single battle or commander that ever has everything go just how they wanted.  Even in the most overwhelming, one-sided total domination of an enemy, things don't go right.  A tank throws a tread.  A spell goes wrong.  A creek floods.  A fog rolls in.  That leader who was so great in training freaks out and runs away.  Something always goes wrong.

We're not really telling you anything useful at all
Now, its not only realistic (more importantly believable) to have things go wrong, but its interesting.

If you've ever watched a caper film closely, you'll notice an absolute pattern.  Either the plan for the bank robbery is totally laid out in exact detail and goes wrong, or you don't know what the plan is, and watch it unfold.  Why is this?  Because if you know the whole plan and just watch them carry it out perfectly that's... boring.  So you get none or a portion of the plan, and you learn how they do it (Ocean's 11) or you get the whole plan and things go awry (The Great Escape).

That principle shows how to write any event, but especially wartime.  Sure, give the battle plan.  Make it seem foolproof.  But complicate matters, every time.  New orders that mess everything up.  An interfering superior officer with his own ideas.  Mutinous troops.  Weather changes, sickness, sudden reinforcements in the enemy, whatever.  Just complicate things, have them not go as planned.

Because one of the most powerful tools you have as a writer to keep interest is to surprise readers, catch them off guard, shake up their calm complacency, and remind them that they don't know what's around the next corner.  Have you ever read a book where you knew exactly what was going to happen, and it always did?  Not terribly interesting, was it?

There should never be the ultimate weapon that destroys the enemy, or the invincible character that cannot be hurt.  There should never be the army that cannot lose, the castle that cannot fall, or the hero that is always right.  You need to make sure each thing has a weakness, a failing, a way it can go wrong.  Even Achilles had his non-invulnerable heel.

By making things too absolute, the story is dull.  Yay, the wizard rides in and casts his 'destroy army' spell, and the good guys win.  Yawn.

Another repeated certainty in war is that nobody knows everything that is going on.  Even in today's modern high tech battlefield with satellites, radar, drones, cameras, and radio contact, it still isn't 100% certain what's happening everywhere.  Even if central command has a clear picture of the overall battlefield, Joe Soretoes on the ground only knows bits and pieces, and often doesn't even know the overall goal.  That's called the "fog of war," the uncertainty of every element of the battle and inability to see and know everything at once.

Remember this as you write.  Even if your Jedi Hero has Battle Meditation and Force Vision, he's still not going to know everything that is happening - and neither will your readers.  Give them pieces, misconceptions, and half-truths until the end when all that needs to be revealed, can be.  Keep things uncertain and unclear except where they have to be clear and certain, so that the war feels more chaotic and the outcome in doubt.

Lets face it, people die in combat.  That's one of the great horrors of war: that troops and innocent bystanders die.  Good men and evil lose limbs and eyesight, are mangled and ruined.  People go literally crazy in battle and some never recover.

It tastes like orange juice after brushing your teeth
You have to have at least some of this, even if its for young people, or it won't feel like war and will not tell the story powerfully enough.  Even in the Chronicles of Narnia, Lucy had to go around the battlefield and heal the wounded.  They had to bury their dead.

You don't need to overemphasize this; the point of the story is to tell the story, not focus on morbid misery and horror.  Tell what you have to for the story you're writing and the tone you have, but don't forget.  War is hell, sheer hell.

Bernard Cornwell is the best current author writing these kind of scenes; I recommend his books, particularly the Archer and Sharpe series to study and learn from.  He keeps the action huge and moving without being confusing or losing sight of his characters and why they are there.  He does an excellent job of blending individual goals and character actions with massive forces moving through the battle.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Know Your Guns

Guns, guns guns.  Even in fantasy writing, guns will come up whether its futuristic dystopian fantasy like the Ralph Bakshi film Wizards or more modern Urban Fantasy, you'll see guns.  If you want to be an effective, quality writer, you will very likely have to know how to write guns.

Despite being a fairly common tool, there are a lot of misconceptions and much confusion around guns. Ignorance in news reporting makes matters even worse.  Here are a few simple category definitions to help make things clear, because you don't want to refer to that revolver as an automatic:
  • Automatic Weapon: A gun which will discharge bullets continuously as long as the trigger is depressed.
  • Clip: a pre-loaded cartridge of bullets without a feeding spring used to load a magazine.
  • Double Action: a weapon that cocks automatically when the trigger is depressed. 
  • Magazine: a container of bullets with a spring to feed bullets into the weapon.
  • Revolver: a hand gun with a round, wheel-like magazine.
  • Semi-Automatic Weapon: A gun which will discharge a single bullet for each time the trigger is depressed.
  • Single Action: a weapon that must be cocked manually each time it is to be fired.
For more terms and meanings of guns, check out this writer's guide (pdf); it only has lots of useful information and illustrations, and I recommend keeping it handy on your writing device for details and reference.

We're going to need a bigger redhead
If you watch movies you'll see a tremendous number of misconceptions, mistakes, and outright nonsense on display that a good writer will try to avoid.  The Mythbusters have made several shows looking at these gun tropes, and showing how many of them are simply ridiculous.

For example, no hand held gun will penetrate deeper than 4 feet of water.  In fact, the bigger the bullet, the less deeply it penetrates the water, because of its size and the water resistance.  Smaller bullets tend to remain more intact, but larger ones usually shatter when they hit the water.  Forget the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan where slow-moving bullets tunnel dozens of feet through water and kill.

And a bullet will not knock a target flying.  You can unbalance someone and knock them over easily, but they will not fly through the air.   Its simple physics: the bullet leaving that gun will hit no harder than it pushes back with recoil.  Now, some of that recoil can be compensated for by venting and using it to load the next round (in an automatic weapon), but it still kicks.  Except when it kicks it doesn't knock you flying, even with a big gun.  It can make you stumble back or surprise you and knock you down if its a big gun, you're little, and you weren't expecting it.  But in no way will that gun knock you flying backward.

And when that bullet hits it doesn't knock anyone flying either.  Even aside from the physics explained above, the bullet hits on a very small area.  That means it will penetrate, using the energy to push through the target, tunneling through it.  In other words, it doesn't stop at the target and transfer all of its energy into them suddenly.  So yeah, looks cool in movies, sounds impressive, but guns don't work that way.  Even a really big gun hitting armor plating will not knock the target flying.

Ammunition is limited.  This is a pretty simple fact that seems quite obvious, but is so often ignored for dramatic purposes or simply because the writer didn't care.  For example, a six-shooter has six shots.  I know that sounds silly but watch any western, even the really good ones like Open Range, and count how many times the hero fires without reloading.  Its sort of a game for me, to count the bullets that colt revolver holds in the film.  Usually its well over six before they run out.  If they ever actually run out.

Try to keep track in your writing, because needing to conserve ammunition and reload actually adds tension and dynamism to your story.  If Steely Eye'd Dan the sheriff of Rock Ridge can shoot forever with his pistol, he's got nothing to worry about but missing.  But if he has 5 shots (because those old single action guns could go off if jarred so some would keep an empty chamber under the hammer) before he's out, well that makes things a bit more interesting.  don't believe me?
(incidentally he only fired 5 shots, apparently he keeps one empty under the hammer, too)

See that revolver Clint is holding?  Notice when he has it pointed at the suspect on the ground and gives that speech.  Look at the chambers, those holes on the front of the cylinder.  See how they are blank and look empty?  That's because they are empty.

You can see if a revolver has any bullets left in it, except right under the hammer.  And with a double-action revolver (like Dirty Harry's .44 magnum), when you pull the hammer back it rotates the cylinder to put the next bullet up to the barrel for firing.  This is useful, because it means you can see if the gun has a bullet ready to fire or not in some situations.  In movies, they will put a fake bullet tip in the cylinder to make it look like its loaded. 

That's how Brandon Lee, the talented son of Bruce Lee was killed making a movie: the fake tips put in for close ups were left in, and one of them was fired with a blank into his stomach and he died from the wound, believe it or not.

Also, guns are very, very loud.  Very.  Ear-splittingly loud.  Don't have your characters engaging in a witty conversation while they are in a gun battle, they probably can't hear each other, let alone understand anything even between gunshots.

A small bit on "silencers."  Its okay to call them this, because it is a popular culture word, but the proper name is "suppressor."  They do not "silence" anything.  In fact, they don't really make guns all that quiet.  A suppressor will make a gun considerably quieter, but even a .22 will make a popping noise when it is fired.  A larger gun will sound about the volume level of a book dropped on the ground.

The purpose of a suppressor is to disguise the muzzle flare (the flame that comes out the end of a gun when it is fired) and to make it less clear where a shot came from.  The suppressed level of volume and change in its sound makes it uncertain what happened; was that really a gunshot?  Where did it come from?  What it does not do is make a little 'pfft!' sound like in the movies.

Where 'gunshot residue' comes from
And no, a suppressor will usually not do a thing for a revolver.  Revolvers have too many gaps that gasses (thus fire and sound) will escape and make a lot of noise.  There are gas-sealed revolvers but they are very rare, unusual, and expensive.  All a silencer does a the end of a revolver is look silly to people in the know.

Oh, and when you are trying to intimidate someone with a gun?  Constantly cocking and working the slide is not a good thing.  Once a shotgun with a pump action is racked, it is loaded.  It makes a really impressive sound and looks good to do that, but now it has a shell in place to fire.  If you do it again, you eject the shell in your gun and the action pushes a new shell into place.  Its not nearly as intimidating to jack a perfectly good shotgun shell to the floor.  Especially since most shotguns don't hold more than 8 shells to begin with.

With an automatic, pulling the slide back does the same thing: loads a round.  Doing so again, same thing, a bullet pops out and tinkles off the floor in a very non-impressive manner.  And while that 1911 .45 pistol is a nice workhorse gun, it only holds 7 rounds in the magazine, so you don't have much to spare.

Goes well with pearls
Now, this is a bit tricky.  Unless someone is a real gun buff, they don't need to know that your hero is holding a Tavor TAR-21 Israeli bullpup 5.56mm assault rifle.  Its fun to mention that, but many people don't know a Glock from a shotgun (hence the common mistakes in reporting on guns). 

Like any technical aspect of a story, giving too much detail can be not just annoying but confusing to readers.  But leaving it out entirely sounds too vague and amateurish.  I find it best to let the perspective of the characters dictate what you describe.

For example, a bad guy steps into a crowded restaurant with a TAR-21 and brandishes it.  The 8 year old girl just knows its a big scary gun.  The soccer mom thinks its an "assault weapon" because that's what they call them on the news.  The recently-discharged marine lance corporal knows exactly what it is and would call it by its name.  The bad guy just calls it "Sophie" and polishes it every night with gun oil and a My Little Pony pillowcase.  

So when the perspective or narrative is from their perspective, call the weapon what they would call it.  Most of the time "gun" will suffice, but its useful for readers to know what sort, so at least in the establishing shot say something more specific.

Taking time to know your weapons - guns, sword, lasers, etc - will make your work seem more authentic, plausible, and immersive.  The story will read more smoothly without annoying people in the know, shocking readers out of their reading trance, and making you seem silly, resulting in mocking and angry internet posts and reviews.  And nobody needs to be called a n00b on Guns and Ammo Forum.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Unworthy Lives Published

For more than eight years I have been working on a book, and now its done.  Life Unworthy is finished and available for pre-order on Amazon (release date September 21).  Life Unworthy is a supernatural thriller set in WW2 Poland, and unlike my previous two books is more gritty and dark in nature.
Here's the back blurb:
When poison gas was delivered to a shower in Birkenau, the camp guards expected death, but what came out of that concrete chamber was far worse. Now the Fuhrer has demanded the monster be tracked down and destroyed, but a German scientist has other ideas for how it may be used for the third Reich. And the Werewolf has plans of his own.
Caught in the middle is the city of Krakow and its citizens striving to survive under the brutal, murderous Nazi regime. In that city is Aniela Wisniewski, a ‘pianist’ feeding snippets of information to the British. As events unfold, terror spreads over the city with Aniela at its center, a terror racing to an inconceivable conclusion!
I started this novel before I wrote Snowberry's Veil and Old Habits, as a National Novel Writing Month book effort. I didn't actually finish the book, but the effort to put something on paper every day forced me to write when I was worried about the time and trouble of finishing a book and broke me free to actually become an author.
But Life Unworthy was a more challenging book, one that was more difficult to write in terms of the story and the concept I had in mind.  I wasn't up to the task as a writer.  So I turned to other projects and I enjoyed them tremendously: two fantasy novels which are getting great reviews and are very well accepted by readers.
So now the book is finished, and you can read the first part of the book as I post it in serial format on Wattpad, two parts a week until the release date.  Here is the full book cover for the print version which will be available on Lulu and CreateSpace print on demand:

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Reconsidering Covers

About a year ago I wrote a piece about book covers in which I thought about a few concepts regarding a good book cover and how important it is.  In the time since then I've continued to study and consider this topic and have learned more.

Book covers are the only real way you have to reach out to readers.  You can hope for word of mouth, you can pay to advertise, you can make a "book trailer" video and post it, you can give away copies, but ultimately, with over six billion potential customers around the world living on 57,000,000 square miles of land, you're not going to reach them all.

What you can do is make a compelling, intriguing, and effective book cover so that when people look for something to read, they will notice and become interested in your work.  In fact, I would argue that your book cover matters more now with modern online purchasing habits, more than it ever has in the past. 

Book stores tend not to show book covers on most of their shelves, because books store better spine out than cover out - you can put much more variety on a shelf that way.  Titles, buzz, reviews, and author names were how people tended to shop.  Covers could often be fairly awful, yet manage to sell because once you have a book in your hands, you can look at the blurb, flip through it, and even talk to an employee or friend about it.

Now, people look at your cover, usually on a page with many covers, and if you don't catch their eye quickly, they move on.  Click on, choose another tab, and never look back.  So your cover has to be your sales representative and grab a potential reader immediately.

So what makes for a good cover?  There is a lot of debate about this.  Some books sell with virtually nothing on the cover; consider the 50 Shades of Gray book cover:
If you didn't know what that book was, would you buy it, or look twice?  Perhaps - but what is it about?  The font looks kind of simplistic, you have a tie and... well nothing.  Its not even gray, its blue.  Other covers have terrible designs but sell.  We'll get more into that in a moment.

These are the basic characteristics of what a cover needs which I've developed over time:
  1. The focus of the cover is the title, not the image.
  2. The cover needs to be easily recognizable and clear in thumbnail size.
  3. The title should be unique looking but easily readable.
  4. The author and title are often in different, but related fonts or sizes.
  5. Unless you're Steven King, the title should be significantly more prominent than the author's name.
  6. The cover needs depth, so you feel pulled in and attracted to it .
  7. Bright colors and contrasts draw attention well, but one strong theme color draws attention better than multiple colors.
  8. For genre books the cover gives a hint to genre and should not contrast with it.
  9. The reader's eye should move from title to author, across the design.
You can get away with breaking these rules, of course.  The 50 Shades cover, or the most recent Harper Lee book Go Set a Watchman:
But these books work not because of their cover - they don't even need a cover except to give someone something to buy them by - rather because of their fame and publicity. Go Set a Watchman is a pretty poor cover; the To Kill a Mockingbird title in there is confusing, but that doesn't matter.  The book got months of publicity and Harper Lee is a beloved and well known author.  Chances are, you are not and you didn't have every news outlet around the globe talking about your upcoming book release for weeks.  You need a cover to help sales.

Now, considering the rules, lets look at a more conventional cover to a book that's selling well right now.  This is Alert, the top selling overall book according to the NYT Best Seller list for July 2015:
So we have the title larger than the author names - despite Patterson being a big name author (that's why he's on top and first seen by most viewers). 
-The title and author names are in different fonts, but related (sans serif simple fonts). 
-The book has a strong, bright contrasting color theme: grayish like smoke over reds and oranges like blood in the water or smoke, even evoking fire.
-The author name moves your eyes down toward the title, which then moves you down toward the second author's name.  Top left where English language readers begin, moving rightward and down, then back to the left in a "Z" pattern - this is common and very effective, because its how western eyes read line to line.
-The cover gives a feel for some kind of trouble or concern, and the title helps move you psychologically to sense the reddish parts as dangerous.  You get a sense of thriller or suspense.  Red is kind of cheating because it attracts the eye more than other colors, but its effective here because it gives a sense of anger, alarm, and trouble.
-The cover image has depth, layers of smokey things that pull your eye in (cleverly toward the "A Michael Bennett Novel" subtitle).

Consider how well this image shows up and is not only recognizable but easily understood even in small size. Overall, this is a winning cover on a very well-selling book.

All that from a very simple cover design: words and vague, abstract colors. The Alert book gives you an idea what you need in a cover. 

Here's what I came up with for my book.  The book on the right is my original simple cover, with the one on the left being the more recent, updated, and complex cover.
As you can see, the image became significantly more complex and many elements changed.  I put a lot of work into making the elements blend in better and the title more significant.  I think it works well and I'm comfortable with it, even though I'm not a professional graphic artist or book designer.

The cover has grown and gotten much better: the gems and black velvet are part of the image and not stacked on top.  Each element interacts with the others.  The hand reaching gives a feel of thievery, which helps give a sense of the book's genre and contents.  The colors are bright but overall the theme is black, and the larger font is much easier to spot and read.  The result is a better cover, which has helped me with sales, slightly.

It is expensive to get a good cover done.  You'll easily pay $200-$400 for a quality product.  But if you do it yourself, chances are you will end up with, well, my first lousy effort that looks like some idiot with MS Paint slapped things together.  But the effort and money is well worth it to have a quality book cover that attracts attention.

Because all the fine writing in the world is useless unless someone buys your book to begin with.  And that starts with your cover.