Boy, I love the Science Fiction And Fantasy Facebook thread! The people there give me a wealth of inspiration.
Recently, someone started a thread and asked how people felt about having characters versus scenes (or other designs) on their book covers. In this context, they were referring to mainly fantasy and science fiction. I think that particular author is fantasy, if I remember correctly.
I’ve talked about covers before, how important they are, how I personally feel about them, and how they can influence your book sales.
Now, let’s look at both sides of the coin.
BOOK COVERS WITH CHARACTERS
A great artist may be able to bring your character to life. If your main character is very good looking, or is an alien creature or fantastical beast, that image fills in the blanks for the reader. They see that image on the cover and picture him, her or it throughout the story. If, the rest of the artwork accompanying the image fits with that image, you may have a flashy cover that gives the reader a vivid idea of a particular scene in the story. That can be a great way to sell a book.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, not only does the character on the cover not look anything like the main character, but the scene depicted has nothing to do with any scene in the story! Let me repeat that. Ninety-nine percent of the time, not only does the character on the cover not look anything like the main character, but the scene depicted has nothing to do with any scene in the story!
It’s a well-known fact that publishers give their work over to cover artists and it’s up to these artists to “interpret” the story and come up with a cover. So, the artist does just that. They “interpret” their impression of something in the story, which hardly ever corresponds to an actual event in said story. That includes the actual main character. It is usually a composite at best.
The author rarely, if at all, has any input whatsoever, even if given “token” input.
Therefore, though the artwork may be super fantastic, it rarely has anything to do with the actual story. It might be “close enough for guv’mint work,” but if the reader gets the impression that that cover depicts an actual scene in the book, they may read and read and read, searching for that particular scene, only to be disappointed.
How do I know this?
Because I’ve done it countless times! I’ve seen a cover, read the book and come away disappointed.
What about self-published authors? Do they have more control over their artwork?
That’s an interesting question because maybe they do. However, in this case, since they have to fork out all the cash themselves, they have more of a budget and as a result, many many self-published works have a bad rep for less than stellar covers.
Do you want your reader to get the picture of a heroine that looks like Marty Feldman who’s supposed to be a female warrior out of their mind?
WHY FORCE AN IMAGE?
Now, for the other part of the bad, why force an image on your readers? Why force them to see any of your characters as anything other than what you paint as words? If you use words, give them just enough to guide them along. Then, let them fill in their own blanks. Even if you give them minute details, a lot of readers are going to lose interest and fill in their own blanks, anyway. If you force them into some image on the cover, whether good or bad, you take away that freedom.
This hazard comes with a price if your book is adapted to the movies. Once a certain star takes on the role (and this goes for side characters as well), it leaves those faces cemented in the consciousness of the readers. If the stars change from movie to movie, there can be a rebellion of sorts. Some people will stick with the original star, while others with either go with the flow, or once again, fill in the blanks. Guess what’ll happen with your book covers? There’s a pretty good bet the original covers will be replaced with revised artwork with the stars on them.
BOOK COVERS WITHOUT CHARACTERS
Book covers without characters are quite common and are a far safer bet for you as a writer. Without a character (which includes beasts, icky bugs, monsters…whatever), you can now let the words you write drive those descriptions for the reader. You’re no longer at the mercy of an artist you have no control over to drive your impression of what your character (or icky bug) looks like. Now, it’s up to the reader to fill in their own blanks.
What about the artwork, the scene or image?
Now, this is a whole different realm. Especially for fantasy novels, they artwork tends to be more elaborate than other genres. It doesn’t have to be a scene from the book specifically, just the impression of something that could be from the book. Something to attract the eye. After all, that’s the whole point of the cover. To attract the eye.
That’s the way it is with any cover, to attract the eye. No matter the genre, the cover needs to attract the eye. Since this style has no character or figures on it, it’s a scene, a logo, or something along those lines.
Blank covers are the least interesting. Best-selling authors can get away with them better than new authors. They’re the most boring of all.
Random patterns are next.
Then repeated patterns.
Then logos, though they can be quite popular and effective.
The best are scenes of some kind, and should have some relation to the story but don’t need to be a specific one in the book. Then again, if it’s a fantasy story, the scene shouldn’t be from a shopping mall!
They key is the artwork, whatever is used, doesn’t look hokey or amateurish. That screams self-published.
However, that doesn’t mean all self-published books have bad artwork, or that conventionally published books have great artwork. There are self-published books out there that put the big six to shame. It’s a matter of effort and how much money you want to sink into your book, if you self-publish. If conventionally published, it’s all about lucking into a great marketing and art department!
Whichever way you go, keep in mind that if you get conventionally published, you have little control over the artwork so if they decide to put a character on the cover, tough! If self-published, do you really want to cement the main character in the reader’s mind or let them paint their own picture? Most people will anyway.
If you do it for them, they may not like what they see and it may bias them against you or your story. It’s better to leave a little to their imagination.
I’ve talked about reviews before, but it’s time to go into them again, especially since I have a few under my belt.
When it comes to marketing your book, one of the most difficult things to obtain are independent reviews. When you’re a total unknown, one of those brass rings you have to grab for are independent reviews. I’m not talking about “paid” ha ha “independent” reviews. I’m talking about legitimate and honest independent reviews by people you don’t know who actually read the book and either like it or think it sucks. Or…somewhere in-between.
The whole point is to get independent feedback from the real world. You want that feedback, hopefully good, of course, to help sell your book. After all, “word of mouth” is one of the best ways to sell something.
To me, there’s something inherently dishonest about paid reviews. Okay, the “reviewers” can go ahead and say they’re a business and they have to eat. On the other hand, you’re paying them for a supposedly “unbiased” review of your book.
Have you ever actually looked at one of those paid reviews?
I have and it wasn’t pretty.
Does the phrase boiler plate ring a bell?
A couple of them, who I won’t name, were so boiler plate, they almost mimicked a certain blatant paid reviewer I used to rail about on Amazon, one I warned you about that was an obvious fake reviewer. This “lady” if she really existed, used to take the back cover blurb, use that as her review and give the book either four or five stars. That was her review. She had like 100K reviews on Amazon and every one of them was exactly the same format. They were all on books I wasn’t particularly happy with, by the way.
Back to the paid review sites. You go to their submission pages and they’re full of warnings and “no guarantees” and all the usual bla bla bla stuff about how you could be throwing your money away, could lose your book in the slush pile and may never see your review. Or, if you did, it may be up to a year before it ever shows. Also, there would be no guarantee of a good review.
Ahem…once again, go right to the boiler plate. I looked and looked and of all the boiler plates, there might be a single sentence attached to the standard boiler plates that varied to tell the truth about the book. Those single sentences didn’t vary much. So, if the book really sucked, I guess it never made publication and was culled. Those are the ones that got “lost” in the shuffle or never made the “no guarantee” cut.
Only the good reviews or at least the better ones made the cut.
Now, you may ask, what was the boiler plate the review was based on? I can’t give you the exact words without giving the web sites away, but they were all customized to each genre, let’s just say that. If it was fantasy, it was about the beasts and wizardry. If it was western, it was about the boots and cows and so forth. If it was romance, it was about the whatever romance is about. Every review on each genre page was the same except for one sentence that actually applied to the book!
So much for paid reviews.
NON-PAID REVIEWS – INDEPENDENT
These are the gold, especially to the new and struggling writers. Unfortunately, to the new and struggling writer, these non-paid review sites can be just as struggling and unknown as you are and their viewership can be a few to non-existent.
However, you’re more than likely to get a more specific and honest review. The good with the bad?
Obtaining a meatier review on a web site that nobody sees doesn’t get much promotion potential does it?
Who says that review has to sit there in obscurity?
What about you?
There’s always your own publicity machine, however small and limited you might be, starting out the gate. If you’re any kind of marketer, whether you get out there in the trenches, or do everything from a computer, you should at least have a few sources. How about a web site, Facebook page, forums for your genre? All of these present an avenue to trumpet your new review.
How about Twitter as well?
All of these are potential sources to repeat that review, provide a link to it, spread the word. Not only are you helping yourself, but you’re drawing more traffic to that web site. Maybe, just maybe that’ll draw more of an audience to that site and multiply exposure to both of you. The reviewer’s site gets bigger, more prominent, your review becomes more important in the big picture.
Ever think of that?
How about adding that review to a list of reviews for a publicity sheet?
One day, you may want to accumulate all these independent reviews into a consolidated package, maybe to be used for a re-print of the book.
We mustn’t forget the retailer reviews like Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Goodreads etc. Of course, you can’t copy them directly, but maybe quote lines. I did a bad review of a monster movie and the produces took one line from my review and used it out of context to tout their movie. I saw that and go what??? If they can get away with it, why not you?
Whether all of your reviews are good or bad, copping the best lines from your reviews may be a thing to do. It may be a bit shady, but you can also go the high road and just pick the best of the best of the best. Keep it true and use it to your best advantage.
Whatever it takes.
Once again, I have to thank the Facebook Genre Writers Retreat Fantasy Sci-Fi Steampunk Etc. page for this inspiration. A discussion came up the other day where a reader asked if she should add a pronunciation section to her book.
Just the idea of needing one in the first place brings up a set of issues that I discussed briefly in the post and want to address here. I’ve alluded to them in past posts, but thanks to that thread, I can now focus solely on this subject.
PURPOSE OF A PRONUNCIATION GUIDE
Just the idea that one is needed indicates that there are enough words sprinkled throughout the book that the reader is going to stumble over them. We’ll get to the stumble part in a moment. This list, if extensive enough to require a list, is either a list of made up, obscure or foreign words that the average reader may or may not want to learn how to pronounce.
For the reader’s convenience, the author, if he or she keeps track and doesn’t miss any of them, lists the entire range of difficult-to-pronounce-correctly words at the back or front of the book. Problem solved. Or is it?
WHY DO IT?
One reason is immersion. An author gets so wrapped up in their world, whether it be fantasy or science fiction, it’s a common reason to come up with these off-the-wall words (or even other genre fiction where real words are used). To make it more realistic, at least from the author’s perspective, liberally sprinkling these words in the text immerses the reader in the author’s world. In the case of historical fiction, or even non-fiction, they may seem necessary for the setting.
Another reason is literary. In literary fiction, it’s all about the words, the description and the word picture. Therefore, the beauty of the words is key. If difficult or unusual to pronounce words are called for, anything is game.
Maybe the author can’t think of simpler names that are pronounceable, or close enough the reader can figure out their own pronunciation. However, there are 26 letters in the English language and almost an infinite number of combinations to create sounds. It’s up to the author’s imagination to create sounds that are palatable to the reader. The simpler, the better.
HAZARDS OF DIFFICULT-TO-PRONOUNCE WORDS
Say you’re reading along, la de da…and you run across a word, Zarda’dla’beck’wa’wa’wadna’sdna’nwda’da’’’. Oh…kay…first of all, what in the world is that? How do you pronounce it? If the author gives no explanation, you pause, figure something out and move on. If there’s a pronunciation guide at the back of the book, you pause, flip to the back, try to figure out how to pronounce it, then continue reading.
Key thing: pause.
The flow of the story’s been interrupted. It’s come a screeching halt because you had to stop to stumble over that weird-ass word!
For most readers, they’re either going to just give up and skip over it or fill in their own blank. Maybe for the totally immersed reader, they may try to go the extra step. Would you?
For me, it’s just a matter of the old Charlie Brown adult speak “Wah wah wah wah.” I make something up and move on. Even if there were a guide in the book, I wouldn’t bother. I don’t care. I’d just fill in my own blank or skip it, anyway.
Now, in a fantasy setting, take a magick user performing a spell. “Zapbraft grella dragsaft!”
In this case, the words are nonsense. The author knows it, the reader knows it. There’s no need for a pronunciation guide because the words just convey a “mysterious spell” that’s purely effect and nothing else. The reader can zip right over them and move on. They’ll never see those word combinations again.
That’s the difference.
When the difficult word is someone’s name or the name of a place that keeps coming up, or it’s the proper name of a process of some kind, it’s a repeated difficult word that’s going to continue to give the reader pause throughout the story.
Not all, but the majority of people like to breeze through a story. When they read, they read for pleasure and entertainment. It’s not like they’re picking up a college textbook. If they have to use a pronunciation guide to read something, it’s more work than pleasure.
To appeal to the widest audience, this is something you have to consider when you build your world. If your story gives your readers a lot of places to pause, the story flow is going to be herky-jerky and many readers may lose interest. Many might consider your story work instead of pleasure. You have to look at all sides.
I’ve talked about descriptions in various forms throughout the lifetime of this web site. Descriptions set the scene and help establish the mood and feel of your story. However, there are limits and that’s what I want to discuss today.
THE LITERARY ANGLE
In literary fiction, it’s all about the words. Action takes a second stage to description, emotion and narrative. People who like literary writing will not blink an eye at page-long descriptions of some object, location or person. It’s all about the wordplay, the depth of feeling and immersion. Words words words.
THE GENRE/ACTION FICTION ANGLE
In this case, the description is just the starting off point. The idea is to give the reader an idea of what it is, then let them fill in their own blanks. Giving too much description slows the pace, bogs down the action. In genre fiction writing, pacing is everything. People want to see the story MOVE!
The good writer strikes a balance between just enough description to give the reader an idea what something looks like, but doesn’t drag on into too much detail as to give the reader significant pause. What does this mean?
Using me as an example, I just don’t tolerate lengthy descriptions. What happens? The author starts out describing say…a room. We get the dimensions. Then he or she goes into details about furniture, then stuff on the furniture, then history about previous occupants, then history of the objects in the room, then the insects crawling around, the history of the insects, their personal stories, wa wa wa wa.
Folks, he/she’s lost me after the first few sentences. What I see is the good old Charlie Brown adult-speak phenomena, “Wah wah wah wah wah.” I skip to the next paragraph.
If the description continues, I skip to the next paragraph. I continue until the author gets back on track.
I cannot be the only reader that does the same thing.
I’ve already filled in my own blanks with my own useless trivial details that have nothing more to do with the plot than the minutiae that the author just described! Believe me, those minutiae have NOTHING to do with the plot!
When an action/genre writer goes literary, they bog down the action.
This is why you keep descriptions to a minimum. I’m not telling you not to describe things. For goodness sakes, do it! However, when you do, get the most bang for your buck and describe what needs to be described. “Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday used to say (for you young’uns, look up the TV series Dragnet to get that reference).
Give the reader the key details that’re essential to the story, or the key details you want the reader to know and let them fill in their own picture. They’re going to do it anyway, given the first few sentences.
Don’t try to dictate every detail. It doesn’t work.
As some of you that follow this site know, I’m in the middle of editing my next upcoming novel, Lusitania Gold. This story has been a long time coming, one with a twenty-one year history. That being said, the manuscript has seen many tweaks over the decades. Here, I’ll discuss the process of how the story is slowly but surely (and don’t call me Shirley) coming to fruition. Maybe one day, if this ever happens to you, these insights may help.
I’ve always been fascinated with sinking ships since my grandpappy sat me down in his lap in Lakewood, California in probably…1955 or so, and showed me pictures and stories from an Encyclopedia Britannica my parents had bought, back in the days when there were actually door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen. I guess they fell under that spell and we ended up with a set. Anyway…Grandpa Frank happened to pull out the L book and as we leafed through the pages, we came to one with the most famous or infamous drawing of the sinking of the Lusitania. The split second I saw that image, those four funnels, that hooked rudder and those gleaming propellers sticking above the water and all those people scrambling about in the water, it burned in my memory. I was only four years old, but never forgot that vision and became hooked on shipwrecks.
As time went on, unfortunately, the Lusitania faded into the background because the more infamous Titanic took center stage. However, there were plenty more unfortunate wrecks to read about as well, like the Morro Castle, Empress of Ireland, Sultana, Brittanic and hosts of others less well-knowns.
Decades later, when I fell into writing, thanks to inspiration from Clive Cussler and others, I wanted to put in my two cents and bring the Lusitania back into the mainstream. So, the seed of the idea for Lusitania Gold came into being.
Though it’s gone through substantial editorial tweaks over the two decades since I originally wrote it in 1995, essentially, Lusitania Gold’s the same story. However, in the beginning, it had some bloat, as they say.
In my early research, the Internet was far more primitive than it is today. I did my due diligence and eked out all the details I could at the time based on what I could garner from the library and personal knowledge accumulated over a lifetime. As for the electronic side of research, part of the problem was my personal computer. I also didn’t have access to Google Maps like we do today, among other web sites. It was 1993 when Bob Ballard explored the ship and did the video of his dive on the wreck. Around that time, he published that excellent book that I relied on extensively.
In 1992, I devoured Clive Cussler’s novel Sahara. That novel as well as the first book I read by him, Raise The Titanic, gave me inspiration for the wishful thinking I employed when I wove the plot for Lusitania Gold. Not only that, but along with being fresh off my just finished icky bug novel, The Greenhouse, I added a little surprise. It turns out that another author, which became a later influence, had a strange parallel as well. James Rollins also employed this same surprise in his early novels but was fortunate and talented enough to get published while I was still struggling in the trenches! It was almost a decade later when I read my first taste of his work and discovered he used the same thing.
That whole mix ended up being in the first draft of Lusitania Gold. It was 130K words. Along with that were a few sub-plots. As the years passed, after many query letters and subsequent blind edits by me as I learned my chops, and not knowing what I was doing, they never got deleted like they should.
FIRST MAJOR EDIT – A DECADE LATER
I’d received minor interest and had sent several samples out, chapters and an entire manuscript to a few places, but ultimately, rejects of around eighty or ninety agents and publishers as I recall. By the time I arrived in Las Vegas and found the Henderson Writer’s Group, I decided it was time to read Lusitania Gold to them and get twenty to thirty sets of eyes on it. I knew I needed lots of external input. Besides, my writing and editing chops were light-years ahead of what they were a decade before, plus, I’d set it aside and had already written three or four sequels since!
The tweaking began in earnest! I found sub-plots and passages that were destined for the trimming floor. There were things I didn’t need that had no impact on the story, and at the same time, I lost nothing of either the impact or the plot. I ended up tightening the plot and made it so much better.
On the other hand, because of much improved access to the internet, I also obtained new and improved info on the Lusitania wreck, contacted some divers that actually dove on the ship and obtained real info. This is something I was never able to do with Ballard. I tried multiple times to contact him and never once got a response from either him or anyone from his team.
As a result of this reading to the writer’s group, which took a year and a half, I pared it down from 130K to 95K. Quite a difference!
From the major edit after the writer’s group, I combed through it probably two times over the years, prior to various writer’s conferences. Why? Once in anticipation of pitching it. The second time because I actually got a publication contract. In each case, I tweaked and tweaked, and still found more things as my editing skills improved. I picked up a few more things through the forest (forest-through-the-trees).
When my original publishing contract fell through, the stars aligned and I found my real publisher, one who was there and had been there from the beginning of the major edit with the writer’s group. She’d been in on all the major tweaks and trimming it took to turn it into a better and more suitable manuscript. She knew the story intimately.
Right now, as I’m going through the pre-publication editing, my editor and I are getting to the details. Yet even so, I keep tweaking more real facts. As it turns out, this editing process takes months. During that time, I received another book on the Lusitania for Christmas and read it. Because of that, I now have even more background detail to use for tweaking!
I’ve not only incorporated that into my edit, but have gone back to the Internet and re-tweaked my research. I’ve gone back to Google maps. I went back to the web sites I could recall. I also removed historical names of storms in the areas because I didn’t want to date the material. I’d mentioned certain recent hurricane damage but didn’t want to mention them once I thought about it. Since I’d mentioned those storms, there’d already been others worse!
I added the name of an airport, either added in or took out details I wasn’t sure about. Stuff I’ve been preaching to you about and stuff James Rollins and I talked about extensively at the writer’s conferences where we chatted about these details.
COLD DEAD HANDS
To quote Charlton Heston, which I’ve probably done before but without the guns, as authors, the work never ends until it’s in print, and even then, you want to pull it off the shelf and tweak some more. You want to edit until they pull the manuscript out of your cold dead hands!
I’ll continue to tweak Lusitania Gold until they pull…
Well, you get the picture.
There’ll still be things wrong, historically, physically, scientifically. Some of it’s intentional, wishful thinking. Some of it’s just my blunders. My tweaking is to try to make it as believable as possible – to get you to suspend your disbelief, so to speak. I can’t please everyone and I won’t even try. However, if I can get even some of you to close that last page with a smile on your face, I’ve done my job. I hope you, as writers feel the same way.