Snowy Treefingers

I put on the Barbour and the Bean Boots this morning* and took the family on a ride through Hamilton and Wenham, two quaint, rural towns nearby our house, stopping to get out from time to time to snap photos.

Hamilton-Wenham is full of colonial houses and small farms–it’s the epitome of quaint New England countryside, in other words, but you can see it without driving all the way to Vermont.  Most of the property is privately owned, but there are several farms open to the public and a few trailheads if you know where to look.

One of my wife’s books is set in Hamilton (you can read it for free on Wattpad).  We went with the intention of photographing the area as inspiration for the next book in the series as well as to capture some of the historic homes for a friend.  I mostly ended up taking landscapes, however: yesterday’s snowstorm clung to the trees quite beautifully.

* I realize this sentence makes me sound like an ass.  Nonetheless, I love that damn jacket, and the boots have lasted me a decade already with no sign of needing replacement.

A Few Words on Defeatism

There’s a lot of defeatist thought making the rounds in the Democratic Party right now.  Articles like this one, talking about why Bernie Sanders couldn’t be an effective president, are par for the course among Hillary Clinton supporters.  Just google “Sanders Clinton pragmatist idealist” or some variation thereof and start reading.  The dichotomy is hardly new, and while it’s arguably accurate, it’s also not the whole story.

When did we, as a nation, decide that idealism was a silly idea?  When did pragmatism become the new standard?  You could date it to the recent era of politics extremes, I suppose, an era in which the left and the right are so diametrically opposed that certain people believe only a person prepared to compromise their ideals and settle for iterative change is capable of leading this country.  I get the argument.  Bernie’s a pie in the sky dreamer, while Hillary’s a down to earth doer.  He is the rebellious teenager to her jaded adult.  We’ve heard it all before.

The thing is, it’s all bullshit.

Buying into the notion that sweeping change is impossible and therefore not worth fighting for is fatalism at its worst.  It’s a pessimistic attitude put forward by people who long ago lost their desire to change the world.  There’s a reason why Hillary Clinton is supported primarily by Baby Boomers: she represents the failed opportunity that defines their generation.  Pragmatism is a philosophy of failure, a belief system taken up by people who have given up on an ideal.  The fact that it occasionally gets things done is illusory, a straw man, because it’s pragmatism itself that clogs up the system.

The vast majority of young people in the United States want the sweeping change that Bernie Sanders is talking about.  They want equal rights for all, universal health care, and free education.  They want justice for special interests and the big banks.  They want a redistribution of income and an economy based on morality first and profit second.  They want a government free from the corrupting influence of organized religion.  They want to escape the anxious shadow of their parents’ generation, to step outside of their failure and start fresh.

Pragmatists argue that since idealistic pursuits are more difficult to realize, we shouldn’t bother to try.  That despite the fact that the Affordable Care Act was a band-aid on a bullet wound, we should be grateful for what we’ve got, because it was really hard to get it passed.  I call bullshit.

This is exactly the same argument that led to bailing out Wall Street after the Great Recession.  It was pragmatists, like Hillary Clinton, who supported the bailout because the firms in question were too big to fail.  Never mind the fact that the crash was the direct result of their reckless speculation.  Letting them fail was too dangerous, the pragmatics said.  Everyone would suffer.  How did that work out?  The economic recovery has been dismally slow, and absolutely nothing has changed on Wall Street.  Compare that to Iceland, which let its banks fail, and which is now on a path to two percent unemployment.

The analogous move with the ACA would have been to refuse to make compromises: to make it actual public healthcare, not a flawed marketplace that does little more than make private health insurance more widely available.  That may have meant it wouldn’t have passed at first.  So be it.

Let those who would oppose progress oppose it, and let the chips fall where they may.  Let history decide who was to blame.  Perhaps counterintuitively, I think you’d find that far from delaying progress, it will encourage it, encourage greater participation and a more deeply shared need to create change.

Sometimes half-measures are worse than no measures at all.  If the change that’s right seems impossible, it just means you have to fight harder and longer, a concept Bernie Sanders clearly understands: he’s been doing it his entire life.

Pragmatism is the death knell of progress.  Idealism is its vanguard.

‘Exile: The Book of Ever’ Is Coming To Wattpad

Exile AMZN-EPUB

Starting Friday, January 29, 2016, I will begin posting my first novel, Exile: The Book of Ever (#1) to Wattpad.  Over the course of about a month, I will post a chapter every day.  This means you can either follow along serially or wait a month and read the whole thing all at once.

Exile will still be for sale as an ebook and a paperback in the same places you’ve always been able to find it, but this means it will also be entirely free to read for those who want to.

Why am I doing this?  Two reasons.  First and foremost, Exile is a YA novel, and Wattpad has a lot of young readers.  Second, and relatedly, I want to see if I can develop a wider audience.  Exile has been well reviewed, but hasn’t seen as much commercial success as I’d like: I’m hoping bringing it to Wattpad will get it into the hands of readers who might otherwise not find it.

Exile is a post-apocalyptic fantasy with dystopian and sci-fi elements.  I’ve often described it (and heard it described) as X-Men meets The Walking Dead.  Here’s the blurb:

Centuries after the Fall, the United States has been wiped away. The crumbling remains of the great American empire are home now only to savage, lawless tribes and packs of ravening Damned—the twisted children of the apocalypse. Most of those few who survived humanity’s destruction spend their short lives in a violent struggle for survival. But some light still flickers in the darkness: the Blessed of Bountiful live in seclusion, relying on walls both physical and spiritual to protect them from the Desolation that their world has become. Among them are the Saints, those few men and women born with superhuman abilities that the Blessed see as gifts from God.

The violent apostate tribes of the Northeast Kingdom have always been a danger, but up until recently its small size and the vigilance of its people have made Bountiful an unappealing target. As attacks on the community grow harsher and more frequent, however, even the steadfast Blessed are forced to start preparing for the worst.

With her home’s very existence threatened, seventeen year old Ever Oaks, a Saint with the power to heal, is forced to make a difficult choice, one that may come to define her people’s future…

I have high hopes for Exile over the long term.  It’s a gripping, entertaining story, but one that also challenges the reader in unexpected ways.  And it’s got a kickass female protagonist who I think young women might like.  If you haven’t taken a look yet, you’ll have the chance to read along on January 29th.  Mark your calendars!

On the Tongue Tonight

 

I want to eat when the fire’s done

I want to dance when the bulls have run

Other side of the hard day’s sun

The water’s coming to a boil

 

I want to ask when the bills are paid

Do the work of my father’s day

See the road from a dead highway

The water’s coming to a boil

 

Cause there ain’t one way to live in the dark tonight

Life is long and the fire’s bright

The trees don’t lie when the wind goes by

Water of life’s on the tongue tonight

 

Bring the dog if you must, all right

The world don’t wait on your trust, old wight

I can’t think what the future might

The water’s coming to a boil

 

Cause there’s nothing to say that has been said

And campfire coffee after the world’s short end

And when your mother father declares the world won’t end

 

Bring ’em back to the fire

I want to walk in the fire

The books are in the fire

They’re dancing in the fire

If We Can Sparkle He May Land Tonight

david-bowie-blackstar

In the late 1980s I became obsessed with a movie called Labyrinth starring a man named David Bowie.  My parents appeared to recognize him as some kind of celebrity, but to me, at the time, he was only Jareth, The Goblin King.  Labyrinth was one of a number of 1980s films that augmented my nascent love of fantasy and cemented it as a foundational part of who I am.  It was only later that I realized that I had been watching a rock legend dance around in a movie aimed at children.

Last night, I played Starman for my son, who is three years old.  We danced to it in front of my laptop.  I had recently downloaded David Bowie’s newest album, an eerie, atonal, masterpiece of symphonic jazz.  Like so many other people, I had no idea he was even sick.

My wife woke me up this morning to tell me he had died.  The irony was not lost.

I was a Bowie fan long before I even knew I was a Bowie fan.  When it came to music and art, he was always a central figure for me, looming in the background like a quiet alien.  First as Jareth, then as a musician, and later as a symbol of what it means to be an artist.

We all thought he was immortal.  Yes, he lives on through his music, but, appropriately, there’s something more to be said about that.

Listening to him on satellite radio this morning, it occurred to me that Bowie has been broadcast into outer space by radio and now satellite for over four decades.  His voice has been traveling through space at the speed of light (or the speed of life?) since at least 1969, when Space Oddity was released as a single.  That means that Space Oddity has traveled approximately 47 lightyears into outer space.

The nearest star to our sun is Proxima Centauri, which is approximately 4.24 lightyears away.  The first transmission of Space Oddity has traveled over ten times that distance.  What does that mean?

David Bowie is literally a starman.

Comments Now Open On ‘The Doktor’s Spyglass’

I’m not sure how many people are reading The Doktor’s Spyglass here on my website, as opposed to on Wattpad, but I noticed recently that for some reason I hadn’t enabled comments on the individual chapter pages here.

That has now been fixed.  If you’re reading the book here on jamesdcormier.com, comments are now open on all parts of The Doktor’s Spyglass.  

Wherever you’re reading it, I want to know what you think!

There Has Been An Awakening

I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens two days ago.  My wife and I took the morning off to see it, having waited until (a) the weekend crowds had died down and (b) our son, who is sadly too young to see or sit through it, was back in preschool.

I should state outright that neither of us have been to the movies since our son was born, more than three years ago.  We didn’t intend for that to happen, things just sort of worked out that way.  (I blame it on the lack of anything worth seeing, myself.)  So it was either the Star Wars butterflies in my stomach or my aged ineptitude, or both, that led me to accidentally purchase tickets online for the 11:00 p.m. show tonight.  We intended to see the 11:00 a.m. show.  The helpful, tattooed miscreant at the ticket counter directed us to guest services, where an extremely patient woman helped us exchange our tickets for the 11:30 a.m. show.

Of course, she had to exchange them again when we realized the movie would let out a half hour past the time we were due to pick up our son from school.  As I said, she was patient.  AMC should be proud.  I’d wanted to see it in normal (2D) projection, but as the only available showing that would let out in time was in (non-IMAX) 3D, we donned our cheap, sadly non-Star Wars themed glasses and headed in.  I tell you these things so you know how discombobulated I was going in to this movie.  Sure, I’m absentminded most of the time, but I think perhaps I was a little more nervous going into this film than I had anticipated being.

My anxiety, however, was misplaced.  J.J. Abrams had us all well in hand.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the best time I’ve had the movies in well over a decade, and the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.

My thoughts, including all the spoilers, after the jump.

Continue reading

Anatomy of a Book Cover

I mentioned in a post yesterday that some book covers require several attempts before the design is right.  One of the benefits of self-publishing is that you have complete control over your book cover, where it is sold, and the ability to change that cover if you so desire.  With ebooks and print-on-demand publishing, there are stockpiles of unsold copies to contend with, so there’s no real reason not to change something immediately if you need to.  In some cases, you can even have Amazon update copies of your books after they’re sold.

That said, some self-publishing platforms are more formal than others, and people who pay money to buy your book on Amazon expect professional quality.  While we should always strive for that level of finished quality, there’s definitely a place, and a market, for a more transparent writing process.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re aware that I’m currently publishing a new novel serially on Wattpad.  It’s called The Doktor’s Spyglass, and it’s (hopefully) an entertaining mixture of epic fantasy, steampunk, and detective noir.  I’ve often referred to it as Locke Lamora meets Sherlock Holmes.  (You can judge for yourself whether I’m making good on these promises by reading it, for free, at Wattpad.com.  All you have to do to read anything on the site is create a login.)

Wattpad’s a fun venue for a number of reasons, but it excels as a proving ground.  Things are a little more informal, and reader interaction on each new section or chapter is an important part of the experience.  Whether you’re there solely to use it as a tried and true platform to publish your story episodically or are looking for beta readers to give you feedback on your writing, Wattpad is a good place to be.

While you absolutely still need a head-turning cover to do well on Wattpad, the informality and iterative nature of the website mean that it’s far more acceptable to experiment.  Which is why I didn’t hesitate to test a few different covers for The Doktor’s Spyglass.  Rather than keep the process a secret, I decided to try different covers as inspiration struck and see what, if any, response the got from readers.

The first version of the cover was deliberately minimalist.  The novel is a detective story at heart, and I wanted readers to think of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett when they looked at the cover.

The Doktors Spyglass

The design deliberately borrows from the stylish, serviceable covers of classic noir paperbacks.  The artwork is monotone and merely hints at what the story might be about.  The text is the real focus of this cover.  Since the novel features a steampunk-like setting, I chose a Victorian typeface for the titles.  I thought the opposing justification of the title and my name gave it an informal touch, the kind of thing that says, “pulp.”

The top margin is deliberately larger than the bottom, to prevent the title from obscuring the burning tower at the top of the illustration.

The image itself is composed of a couple of heavily modified licensed stock images.  The amber color scheme, as you’ll see, is the one thing that runs through all versions of the cover.  The orange hue of amber has a specific connection to the story.

The Doktor’s Spyglass is still only starting to attract readers, but I was never certain that this was the right direction to go with the cover, particularly on Wattpad.  After the story had been running for a few weeks, I decided it was time to revisit the cover.

It occurred to me that the cover I had was possibly too dull or “literary,” for lack of a better term, for the book’s intended audience.  It looks a little like a paperback you’d pick up on one of those “Summer Reading List” tables at Barnes & Noble.  At the end of the day, I write to entertain, not to craft literary scripture.

I wanted the second version of the cover to make the book look like something you want to read, the type of eye-catching cover you’d see on an end-cap and just have to pick up.

TDS New 2

As you can see, this one’s a bit more engaging.  The layout is centered, and the addition of Captain Steampunk Goggles Man and the unmistakable silhouette of a 1940s-ish detective definitely make clear that this is genre fiction.  Overall, it looks a lot more like a science fiction or fantasy novel, and a lot less like Penguin Classic.

I kept the font and the underlying background image, because I thought they still captured the essence of the setting.  The city of Oridos is an ancient city that has seen better days.  In the distant past it was the site of famous battles and fantastical ordeals, but these days it’s a foggy, gaslit mess that belches toxins into the atmosphere and keeps the rich and the poor nice and separated.  I always meant The Doktor’s Spyglass to be one of those stories where the setting, the city, was almost as much of a character as the characters themselves, and I felt it was important to give some sense of that on the cover.  I liked the bleak look of this painting.

I did see a noticeable uptick in reads after changing the cover.  I have no way of knowing if that was directly related to the cover image or not, but given that Wattpad uses your book cover to represent your book all over the website, without any immediate synopsis or other information, I think it’s safe to say it had something to do with it.

That being said, there were some things that bugged me about this cover.  I always felt like I left it a little unfinished; that it was a bit amateur.  Captain Steampunk struck me as being a bit too on the nose, and the silhouette of Irik Thijis, the main character, never looked exactly right.  There was too much contrast; it looks pasted onto the background (which it is), not like it’s a part of it.  The original idea was to make it look like Thijis was cut out of the city itself, like he was as much a mystery as anything else, but I don’t think I accomplished that.

So the other night I gave it another shot, using some of the same elements but starting from scratch with most of it.  Version 3.0 is the best yet, and the only one I’ve yet felt completely happy with.

TDS New 3

Version 2.0 had obscured the burning tower part of the background image, which I didn’t like.  Thinking back, I realized that of the original background, that eerily burning citadel is the only thing that really stands out as being fantasy in any way, and it also evoked the feel of the book more than any other part of the cover.  Like any good noir story, The Doktor’s Spyglass features its fair share of tragedy, destruction, and death, and the burning tower represents that in a dramatic way.

The only parts of the original cover that remain are the tower and the silhouette of Thijis, which has been fleshed out and detailed a bit to help it blend into its surroundings.  The ragged edge to his coat also indicates that he’s been through some shit.  The object in his hand is, I think, more clearly a gun (if perhaps a slightly alien silhouette–this is a fantasy realm, after all.  They don’t have Glocks).

A significant portion of the book takes place underground, in the Oridosi Undercity, and it occurred to me that the cover ought to convey that somehow.  I liked the chthonic feeling the surrounding arches gave the scene, and they certainly convey “fantasy” to the reader.  Another new element is the amber sea and the spots of abstract light at the bottom of the image, which look like they’re flooding the chamber.  This is a direct reference to the main magical element of the novel, a magical plane called the Phiros, which is often described as an “amber sea.”

Finally, I chose a new font.  While still clearly Victorian, its dramatic design, particularly when coupled with the amber stone pattern overlay and a little embossing, definitely has a more “fantasy” feel to it.

Every cover I design is a learning process, just as every day I spend writing is.  I’m happy with what I’ve done with the latest version of this cover, but who knows how I’ll feel a month from now?  The great thing about a service like Wattpad and the people that use it is that they’re all about trying new things.

Let me know what you think about any or all of these covers in the comments.  Which one do you like the best?  Or do they all suck?

Why I Design My Own Book Covers

TDS New 3I design a lot of book covers, for someone who doesn’t do it full-time.  Being responsible for the design of your books, inside and out, is part and parcel of being a self-published author.  That responsibility usually amounts to a choice between designing the books yourself, or contracting the work out to a freelance designer.

Deciding whether to do something yourself or outsource it is a decision that will be familiar to anyone who has run a small business.  When I worked as a private attorney, I faced this question everyday.  Do I pay for someone to design my website, or do it myself, since I have that skillset?  Do I do all the bookkeeping, or hire someone to man Quickbooks for me?  The only way to make these choices is to apply a cost-benefit analysis.  First and foremost, do you have the ability to do this task yourself?  If  yes, what’s more valuable to you, your time or your money?  If no, is it something you can learn?  And if you spend time learning how to do accomplish an ancillary task, are you spending your time wisely?

When you sit down to take care of the myriad tasks that make up the logistical and business side of being a full-time writer, you always have to ask yourself whether you’d be better off skipping this part and just doing some writing.  Usually, the answer is yes.  You should probably be writing.  Sometimes, the answer is an uncomfortable no: getting this shit accomplished is vital to the success of your career.  Other times, and these are the times I’m getting at here, the answer is a confident no: this is important, and it’s okay that I’m focusing on this for the moment instead of doing what I actually do, which is write fiction.

Exile AMZN-EPUBWhen my wife and I started Evil Toad Press, the imprint under which we publish our books, one thing we decided very quickly was that we would outsource all of our interior formatting/typesetting.  Neither of us had any significant experience doing this kind of work, and a day or two spent reading distributors’ formatting requirements and fooling around with Calibre and Adobe InDesign was enough to make up my mind.  I was confident that I could format the text of my book by myself if I had to, but it would require a significant investment of time and effort that I felt would be better put toward writing the actual books.  Most importantly, I figured out relatively quickly that I had no desire to do that work: it didn’t speak to me.  It felt dry and repetitive and boring.  I wanted to pay someone to do it for me, so I did.  We’ve never looked back.

On the other hand, I did have some experience with graphic design.  I’ve got some background in art and web design, and I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit teaching myself Adobe Photoshop.  I felt confident that I could at least take a crack at designing a few book covers, and to my surprise I found that not only did I have something of a knack for it, I really enjoyed doing it.

BOS CoverTo date, I’ve designed the cover for every book released by Evil Toad Press.  Even if you factor in the (small) cost of the tools required–subscriptions to Adobe Creative Cloud and Shutterstock, the odd font license–as well as a reasonable rate for the man-hours I put in designing them, we’ve certainly saved money doing it this way.  Even “pre-made” book covers, which are predesigned templates with your name and book title added, usually run anywhere from seventy-five to several hundred dollars.  If you want a completely custom design by a professional designer or illustrator, the cost may run into the thousands.

But more important, for me, was the unexpected thrill I got designing covers for books I cared about personally.  The challenge of capturing a book’s essence, genre, and tone and expressing them visually was exciting.  It was, and still is, a learning process, to be sure.  It requires a fusion of skillsets, including graphic design, typography, illustration, painting, geometry, and more.  But seeing a book cover come to life and being happy with the end result is incredibly satisfying.

TDODR Cover AMZN-EPUBI’m no professional designer.  I didn’t go to school for this.  I know I’ve got a lot to learn–sometimes it feels like I learn something new with every cover I design.  And not every cover is an immediate hit: some need several mock-ups before I get the concept right, others need to be redesigned entirely.  Sometimes I have to design several alternate covers simultaneously, to see which works the best.  Sometimes it turns out that a book needs a new cover somewhere down the line, because the first version isn’t selling as well as it could.

Some of my covers, to be brutally honest, are better than others.  As I said, it’s a learning process, and sometimes the magic just comes together better than others.

But the point I’m trying, and perhaps failing, to make is that designing book covers adds to my enjoyment of being a writer.  It doesn’t detract from it.  The moment it stops being fun, the moment it starts being a drag that I just want to put behind me, I’ll start paying someone else.  There’s no shortage of ways to buy a book cover.

So what’s the lesson, here?  I know.  You’re waiting for the sappy moral.  Well here’s a go at it.

TPS Omnibus CoverAn accountant once cautioned me not to let logistics get in the way my actual business.  At the time, his advice was specific: don’t try to do payroll by yourself, even if you’ve only got one employee.  Pay someone else to do that for you.  “You do what you do,” he said.  At the time, that meant that I should worry less about payroll and more about actually practicing law, so as to make the money that would support said payroll.  But it’s good advice for any business.  And writing, my friends, is a business like any other.

So do what you do: write.  Pay somebody else to worry about the rest.

New York Times: ‘Police Stab Man To Death With Knife!!!’

Not really.  But sort of.

Yesterday the New York Times published a short article about a shooting in Indianapolis.  The online version originally bore the headline “Police Kill Armed Man With Knife in Indianapolis.”  After a flurry of comments alerting them to the obvious ambiguity of this title, the newspaper replaced the headline with the clearer, if clunkier, “Indianapolis Police Kill Man Who Had Knife.”

The actual facts of the situation involved a knife-wielding man who lunged at a police officer after the officer tried to subdue him using nonlethal force.  (Yeesh, that sentence was a mouthful too, wasn’t it?)

This is a teachable moment if there ever was one.  A Strunk & White moment, if you will.  The original headline, as the Times eventually realized, made it sound as if the Indianapolis police had stabbed a man to death with a knife, which was almost the opposite of what really happened.

It’s not that the sentence was technically grammatically incorrect: one could, if one were so inclined, read the prepositional phrase “with knife” as modifying the words “armed man” as opposed to the word “police.”  Which is a funny way of saying that it’s possible, if not plausible, to read that sentence as meaning what the Times intended it to mean: that the police killed a man who was armed with a knife.

We can probably ascribe the editors’ failure to use “Police Kill Man Armed With Knife” to overexposure to the sometimes over-simplistic sentence structure used in newspaper headlines.  One need only read one of those articles explaining a complex scientific concept using only common words to realize that, sometimes, dumbing down your language only makes an idea more obtuse.

That said, it’s a perfect example of why language matters, and why writers must write clearly.

If nothing else, it’s comforting to know that even the New York Times occasionally makes mistakes.