writing technique

Bear Grylls, here we come!*

Screen Shot 2016-10-02 at 1.41.46 AM.png

Hemingway said it succinctly, and seductively: “A writer’s job is to live life, and then to write about it.” How romantic is that? Hard to resist, I admit it.

Judging by the fruits of his labors, it’s easy to think that he meant that advice literally. No! We should reject any such narrow understanding.

Tonight at work, another slow night, I had time to spot-read one of an admired series of detective stories, full of (seemingly) factual description of a locale. It was fun, but it quickly felt like a device, enlivening stretches of conversation. Sitting around in diners necessarily involves a good deal of yakking. The author creates a rhythm (tight shot/wide lens) with abundant attention paid to decor, street scenes, etc. I try to break up discussion also. I use interior monologue in the same way.

Reportage of observations and journalistic-style research is one approach to storytelling. (Isn’t that what Truman Capote did?) I think it works best when it has a strong emotional component. And I grant that recalled sensory information would certainly include terrific stuff that we probably could not concoct, that simply wouldn’t occur to us. I don’t worry about that in my thing. I’m not writing that kind of a story.

I lean on psychology, relationships, motivations, reactions to circumstance, and, most of all, as much as all the rest combined, on what my characters make of it all. I am big, not on what my fools do, but on what they think. I give very little physical description (Hey. A cat is a cat is a cat. It’s his intellect that sets him apart), something I’ve worried about, but not enough to deal with it. In one spot I interrupted, admitted my snub of scene-setting, and banged together a castle from here and there in my history books, and made a joke of it: There! Some description for you. Happy?

Nuts-and-bolts detail can be a welcome, wind-in-your-sails patch in the midst of the struggle that is birthing a captivating fiction. Me, I like my physical to be short and stylish, I save on-and-on for foibles and flaws. That’s the real that I luxuriate in. The loving depiction of the design of a landmark diner in old Quebec doesn’t enthrall me.

What fascinates me is who people are, not what junk they hang on their wall. Psychology, even though I mangle it for comic effect, is my stab at experience-exploitation. I write, not textbook stuff, I write the street-level neuroses that I, sadly, possess in abundance.

You’ve heard of method acting. I do method writing. I inhabit my critters. Some aspect of every one of them mirrors my own unfortunate ways of dealing with the world. I write my own tics and squirms into every damaged soul. That’s my smooth-sailing, territory well known to me, while I try to figure out what comes next. When I can coast a bit, I do, gladly. I buy time with a variety of strategies, while I wait for answers to assemble themselves and tumble onto the page.

Use experience of whatever variety you possess to enrich your down-the-rabbit-hole, to make it so buyable that readers are willing to swallow whatever you throw at them.

______________________________________________

*Bear Grylls is that guy who roams the world, wrestling pythons, eating bugs, Hemingway-esque adventuring on the cheap. (I don’t believe you’ll be dragging a camera crew with you.) Invest in a backpack and a sleeping bag, you’re good to go. Live off the land, for zilch!**

**Grubs are a first-rate source of protein, says my husband. Roasted, delicious. (He spent a couple years as a short-hop pilot on the Ivory Coast.) He’s the one with the extraordinary experiences. But he doesn’t write.

 

Standard
book promotion, book sales, Uncategorized

Got You Covered

Never mind any old adages you have hanging around about how not to judge a book, it’s pretty much universally acknowledged that book covers matter. In fact, a book’s cover may be the single most important factor that you, as the book’s producer, have some control over. There are certainly bigger reasons for why buyers buy—author name recognition, word of mouth, personal recommendations—but all of those exist outside your scope of influence. You gabbing about your book on Facebook probably will not create a significant word-of-mouth buzz, and until you actually are famous, your name isn’t going to sell anything.

So covers matter. Granted. But how much? A poll at Book Smugglers of 616 respondents gave an overwhelmingly positive response to the question: Do covers matter at all to you? That is, do covers play a decisive role in your decision to purchase a book? Seventy-nine percent said YES. Twenty-one percent said NO.

On the other hand, when asked whether an eye-catching cover for a book you’ve heard nothing about was enough to make you buy it, only 6% said yes. And only 3% categorized the role of a cover in a purchase decision as “dominant.” And, conversely, about 83% of readers said they will go ahead and purchase a book they are interested in reading even if the cover is “truly hideous”(this figure drops when paying for a trade paperback or a hardcover, naturally.)

Polls like this don’t tend to produce definitive marketing numbers, but they do give us a general lay of the land. A good cover helps your chances of selling a book. In most cases the difference isn’t trivial, but neither is it normally a make-or-break factor.

At its most basic level, a cover is an invitation. Open me up. Check me out. Take me home. It’s meant to intrigue the prospective reader into checking out the blurb, maybe reading a page or two (though it is surprising how few people include “reading a sample” among their decision making tools.) What works for one reader might not work for another, so most cover designers aim for somewhere in the middle, which is to say they tend to be pretty conventional. There are plenty of professional book designers out there with their own list of dos and don’ts.  Avoid clashing colors and elaborate fonts. Keep it simple and eye-catching. Make it easily readable, even as a thumbnail. Beyond question, the one piece of advise they all agree upon? Don’t do it yourself. Hire a professional.

The webpage on book cover design at iUniverse provides this handy list:

Your Cover Should:
1.  Fall within the norms for your genre but visually stand out among other books.
2.  Appeal to readers and convince them to take a closer look at your book with a strong visual presence.
3.  Reflect the content of your book and expose readers to your writing style.
4.  Convince a potential reader to invest in a literary journey with your story.

Yeah, no problem.

Your cover should fall within the norms for your genre… Fair enough. Your book cover probably ought to give readers some idea of what to expect inside. If you’ve got elves in the story, maybe you ought to put one on the cover. But the use of genre tropes can lead to a tired sameness. Generic genre covers proliferate, and while these might be a comfort to the diehard genre reader, they hardly entice anyone else, and certainly don’t make your book stand out in a crowded field.

And so the second part of the quote: …but visually stand out among other books. Great advice—only a little weak on the how part of it. Any decent cover artist is already trying to do exactly that. That’s pretty much the first line of the job description. But there’s no secret formula for success. As John Lennon said when asked why the Beatles excited people so much, “If we knew we’d form another group and be managers.”

When I think about the whole question of how a book cover sets the expectations of the potential buyer, I wonder if I didn’t make a mistake. Here. Have a look at the covers for my two books:   spark   and  ag_flightofthewren_hires

Both were created in house by Lycaon Press (now defunct), specifically by Victoria Miller. Victoria does extremely nice work, and she is very easy to work with. I highly recommend her services. Her covers are polished and professional, easily comparable to books published by major publishers.

But I’m always just a little nagged by the suspicion that they are, ultimately, not the right covers for these books. My audience for both books was assumed to be young adult. Lycaon (a YA publisher) certain saw them that way. So did I. With young protagonists and the fantasy elements, it seemed obvious that my ‘target audience’ was younger readers.

But I don’t think that has turned out to be true. I think the largest part of my readership actually comes from adults who like YA stories. And if so, are my covers a hindrance? Are they too kiddish? Do they, perhaps, turn off some readers who like to consider YA as serious literature rather than simply a fun read? I have no problem with either characterization, but I have a feeling most of my own particular group of readers probably fall in the former camp. And if so, might a more restrained—more mature, perhaps?—approach to cover art be more appealing?

I don’t know. I’d welcome any feedback, either specific or general.

As far as the bigger question goes, sure, a nice professional cover is always a plus. But unless you’re talking a faced-out cover on a bookstore shelf, there’s no guarantee anyone is going to see it unless they go looking for it. I don’t think many people browse online waiting for book covers to catch their eye. Most people still shop based on word of mouth or personal recommendations or by looking for the latest book by an author they already know. If they ever do get to your page, then it’s absolutely better to have an appealing, well-wrought cover. But getting them to that page in the first place?

That remains the challenge, folks.

Comments? Questions? Criticisms? You know what to do.

Standard