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.

Write a Letter.

Poetry and Potatoes

It’s hard to talk about liking poetry without coming off as an affected douchebag.  Unless, that is, you hang out at the type of parties I don’t get invited to.  But the truth is, there’s not a lot of love for poetry in the modern United States, an assertion I feel comfortable making given the evidence that it’s next to impossible to support yourself as a working poet.  Ask your average person what poetry is and you’ll likely get an answer lying somewhere on a spectrum between dirty limericks and the one Shakespearean sonnet their English teacher made them read in high school.

Mark Lawrence had some interesting things to say recently about the allegation (from a fan) that his writing was not poetic:

A well-known blogger who liked Prince of Thorns very much told me that he didn’t think my prose was at all poetic. It turns out that to him poetic prose is prose with lots of curls and twiddles, prose with endless description, flowers and clouds a la Wordsworth’s famous daffodils.

I do write poetic prose. No question about it. But I’m more of the Philip Larkin school. I also write actual poetry, but poetic prose is a different beast, it’s poetry diluted to taste.

Poetic prose, done right, is about wringing more out of a single line.

The idea that the adjective “poetic,” when referring to prose, might be meant as a criticism is enough to cork most English professors’ merlot.  But in the aforementioned blogger’s defense, that’s probably a common enough viewpoint these days.

I think the discord comes not from a genuine dislike of poetry, but from a popular misunderstanding of what good poetry is.  (Here’s where the affected douchebag bit comes in; as if I know better, right?)  I’m no expert, but speaking as someone who does occasionally read and write poetry, I feel like the major disconnect is due to the fact that those who don’t read or strongly dislike poetry think of poetry in terms of the worst Romantic frippery.  If you think of poetry in terms of Wordsworth and Shelley, it’s understandable why you’d think of “poetic prose” as being something purple and overdone.  You might not think of the sparseness of Hemingway or the bold economy of words in a Mark Lawrence novel as being poetic, but they are–in the best way.

One of my favorite poems is The Simple Truth by Philip Levine, written in 1995:

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

The irony is that the simple way of saying things has become poetry over the last century.  Upon first reading, a poem like the above might irk you–its simplicity is blatant, like an abstract expressionist painting.  But the power of the words and the story it tells, the feelings it evokes, stay with you.  That’s what art is, isn’t it?  Something that produces an emotional response?  If Levine had used flowery language and ornate metaphor, the impact would have been lost.  As it is we have a simple truth: beauty lies most often in restraint.

The Creativity Threshold: A Few Words on Writer’s Block

My Writing Process, In Bullet Points

Truman Capote wrote supine, with coffee (or sherry) and a cigarette.  Which was the least interesting thing about him.
Truman Capote wrote supine, with coffee (or sherry) and a cigarette. Which was the least interesting thing about him.

I’ve been thinking about writing process a lot lately.  Whenever I’m between large projects or still in a “soft” phase (see below), the process by which I write fiction becomes more present to me than it is when I’m writing one thing determinedly.

Victoria Schwab talked today about “cook time,” a concept which, as obvious as it seems, hadn’t occurred to me before in the context of writing a book, and which actually applies rather aptly to my own process:

I have what I call a long “cook time.” This means that once I get an idea, I let it simmer on the back burner for months, if not years. One of the reasons I do this is because I’m usually working on something else, but the larger reason is that I want to make sure it’s not just a random idea, but something worth pursuing. By the time I take it off the back burner, IF I do, I am fairly confident that it’s not only something I can write, but something I can FINISH. Once I took a project off the back burner, and it turned out it wasn’t quite ready, so I put it back, but once I’ve started to actually write, I’ve never quit a book.

This is almost me, with one exception: I often start writing things that I’m not able to finish right away, because the idea in question hasn’t had sufficient cook time.  So I suppose I’m not as patient as Ms. Schwab, but the overall idea is the same: book ideas, by which I mean world-building, plot character, setting, etc., all percolate in the back of my mind for months and years before I even contemplate starting to write.

The false starts I sometimes have aren’t entirely useless, though.  Often the act of sitting down and writing out the beginning of a story (it’s usually the beginning) acts as a sort of threshold test for the idea as a whole: can I write about this?  Is this something that I could conceivably turn into a full story, or is this a passing whim, a throwaway idea, a piece of micro-fiction at best?

Talking about one’s writing process is usually only useful for the person doing the talking, since everyone’s process is different, but most of us interested in the craft nonetheless find it fascinating.  With that in mind, here’s a few facts about my writing process, in bullet points, because for my purposes bullet points are more useful than a narrative:

  • Contrary to what is apparently one of the most-asked questions at writers’ panels, coming up with ideas has never been a problem for me.  I’ve got more ideas for books than you could shake a lightsaber at.  It’s choosing between them that’s hard.
  • The spark of an initial idea is hard to describe–it strikes you like a little electric shock, and you have to go write it down.
  • I write all of my good ideas down, in the form they came to me, in one of my many notebooks.  There’s a good argument to be made that “if it’s a good idea, you’ll remember it anyway,” but nonetheless I like jotting down some notes about the details when it comes to me.
  • It’s from there that the “cooking” phase begins: the idea zooms around in my head like a pinball, dinging against other ideas, setting off lights and buzzers, combining with things, knocking things out of the way.  Eventually, to mix metaphors, it begins to snowball, changing into a steadily growing kernel of a book.
  • Cook time ranges from months to years for me.  The Book of Ever, for instance, had a comparatively short cook time: I took book one, Exile, from concept to finished manuscript in about six months.  On the other hand, I’ve been planning out an epic fantasy series in my head and in notebooks for years now, which still hasn’t fully taken shape.
  • Usually, a project being on the back burner for me means that I’m stuck or blocked in some way–usually in the way of plot.  I often begin things, then set them to simmer, and sometimes take them off the heat, so to speak, if I don’t know the way forward.  Sometimes other things take priority simply because they’re further along and require more attention.
  • Any time something’s cooking on the back burner, I think of it as being in a “soft phase”: I’m working on it, but not exclusively and perhaps not with full knowledge of its content or ending.
  • On the other hand, once I know how to finish it, it enters the “hard phase”: I work on it exclusively until it’s done.  No getting distracted with notes or writing on other work.
  • Do to the amount of cook time, my writing projects tend to come out in something fairly close to their finished form on the first go; I don’t go through multiple “drafts” the way some authors do.
  • That said, I consider myself a gardener, not an architect.  “Knowing the way forward,” for me, means that I have a general skeleton of the story in mind: major events, character arcs, world-building.  I don’t have a chapter-by-chapter outline, and things often change in the writing.
  • Between the soft phase and the hard phase there’s usually a click.  You’ll hear a lot of writers talk about this moment: that moment when everything crystallizes, when the constellation of ideas and plot points and character beats comes into alignment.  The click.
  • The click, whether it’s a big one or a little one, usually happens at the most inopportune time possible.  Like when you’re having a serious conversation, or parallel parking.
  • Once I start writing, I aim for 1,500 words per day.  Ideally I write significantly more than that, but if I write 1,500 then I don’t feel that the day was wasted.
  • I often edit as I write, which is another reason I don’t go through multiple drafts, and also explains why my output is sometimes on the lower side compared to more prolific authors.
  • When I’ve finished the first draft, so to speak, I force myself to take at least a week off.  Ideally it would be longer, but rarely do I have the patience to wait that long when I know a book is almost ready for publication.
  • When I come back to it, I do one substantive read-through, often mostly aloud, looking for major editing issues related to plot, character, etc.  I read on the screen, editing as needed as I read.
  • After that I print it out, do a copyedit, and give it to beta-readers.  Based on their feedback, I either change things or don’t, then do a final proofread and it’s off to the press.  It’s a simple system, but I’m happy with it for the time being.

What’s your writing process like?  What’s different, what’s similar?  The great thing about this conversation is that there’s truly no right answer: everyone’s process is different.  Don’t compare your writing process to that of another writer.  (Except for the fun of it.)

The Power of Finishing Things

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 10.57.58 AM
Look children, irony.

There is a power in finishing things.  Whether you’re a writer, an artist, a maker, or simply a person completing a task as part of your normal, everyday job, there’s an undeniable feeling of progression to bringing a particular project to a close.  It’s not just the satisfaction of having accomplished something, either–though that is certainly there.  Rather, it’s the sense that, by seeing something through to the end, you have added something to your world, and moved a bit further down the path of your life.  This is most tangible when the project in question is a significant one, of course.

The best sound-byte writing advice I’ve ever heard comes from Neil Gaiman: “Write.  Finish things.  Keep writing.”  It can be hard to start writing, but it’s much harder to continue writing.  It’s a great deal harder than that to finish writing.  Learning the art of finishing things is a lot like learning to run a marathon: you put one foot in front of the other until you’re done.  (If you’d like some more in-depth advice on writing, one of my colleagues at Evil Toad Press has a lot of good things to say on the subject.)

You’re a writer if you write, but you can’t be a professional writer unless you can finish things.  Part of the process of learning how to finish things is…to finish things.  Funny how that works, isn’t it?

One of the problems I had as a new writer, and with which I still struggle, is choosing what to write.  Many writers seem to have the opposite problem: one of the most common questions fielded to authors at conventions, usually by fans who are aspiring writers themselves, is “Where do you get your ideas?”  I have the opposite problem.  I’ve got ideas out the wazoo.  It’s picking one, and sticking with it long enough to produce a finished piece of work, that’s hard.

One of the toughest things to realize as a struggling writer is that no matter how brilliant you are, no one will ever know, or care, unless you can finish writing something.  You might have the best idea for a short story in the world, but if you never sit down and write it, that idea is essentially worthless.  And that brilliant novel you’re half-finished with, the one that’s sitting on your hard drive just screaming Pulitzer Prize?  Guess what.  That’s worthless too.  No matter how pretty the prose is, or how serious the themes, or how compelling the characters, if it’s not finished, it’s not a complete piece of art.  It’s worth nothing to the reader.  If I had to determine the comparative literary merits of the Fifty Shades trilogy and half of The Great Gatsby, I’d choose Fifty Shades.  Not because Fifty Shades of Grey is good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as anything written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but because whatever its flaws, its a complete piece of work.  Whereas half of the greatest American novel of all time is just that: half a novel.

prisoner-awakeningBut wait, you say, hold on: there’s plenty of famous unfinished works of art.  Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures, for example, or that portrait of Washington.  Those are accepted as works of art.  Sure, but first off, most of those examples are incomplete on purpose, which is a completion in and of itself.  Secondly, those pieces are arguably only famous because Michelangelo was already a known master of the art; they’re interesting precisely because we know how skilled he is, and unfinished pieces give us an insight into his process.  Moreover, this is Michelangelo we’re talking about.  When you’re a Renaissance Master, you can do whatever the hell you want, too.  The same holds true for literature: David Foster Wallace’s last novel was released in incomplete form, after his death.  But that’s only because he was already David Foster Wallace, the man who wrote Infinite Jest and “E Unibus Pluram.”  Nobody would give a damn about The Pale King if Wallace hadn’t lived, written, and finished things.  There are other examples, too: Steinbeck, Hemingway.  Hell, Tupac Shakur put out more records posthumously that while he was alive.  But none of that matters if these people hadn’t finished things first and gotten our attention.

So I suppose the punchline is: if you’re already famous, go ahead and through some half-finished crap out there.  Especially if you happen to be dead.  But for the rest of us, we need to focus on finishing what we’re working on before we can think about the praise that will be heaped upon us for its brilliance.

Finishing a book is like finishing a spell: it gives it power, makes it operable.  The act of completion kindles the spark of life inside it.  Until that happens, it’s just dead words on a page.

It seems almost axiomatic that the most common regret people have is not doing something; another common one, even more dangerous in its own way, is not finishing something.  We learn from the time we’re children that not finishing what you’ve started is a sin, but nobody ever really takes the time to explain why.  It’s because rather than simply commit a sin of omission, you’ve committed a sin of negligence, an act of apathy: you’ve created a monster, unfinished and powerless, a stillborn thing sitting out in the world waiting for its soul to descend.

Write things.  Do things.  Finish things.  You’ll be glad you did.

Balance and the In-Between Bits

the_resting_traveler_by_petura-d3hqd7k
The Resting Traveler by Petura

It’s sometimes tempting to me as a writer to continue the thread of a chapter organically–to follow a bell curve of sorts, with rising action, a climax, and falling action.  In other words, when Karthanas the Lesser fights escapes the disaster at the Akkian Mass, my instinct is to follow him out the door, down the path, into the woods, to his campsite…you get the picture.  Obviously the stronger decision at this point would be to cut the action off sooner rather than later.  After all, does how your protagonist gets from one place to another really matter that much?  Does it move the plot forward?  Sometimes it does.  Road stories, river stories, quest tales…those are about the adventures the characters have along the way as much as they’re about the end goal.  But most of the time it doesn’t matter how your characters get from Point A to Point B.

One of the hardest lessons to learn for me has been that you can and should edit your novel in the same way that a film editor edits a film.  I studied the Modernists a lot in college–Hemingway, Faulker, Joyce.  I often feel an ingrained literary tendency to focus on the mundane, even when the story isn’t, strictly speaking, a “literary” one.  Even writing in the third person, I often begin to follow an inadvertently stream-of-consciousness pattern if I get too distracted.  This isn’t always a bad thing: sometimes it produces a pretty turn of phrase or a useful insight into the emotions of the character.  But most of the time I find myself writing about the irrelevant quotidian activities of the character in question–the to’s and fro’s, the in-between bits.  What they did before and after the big fight, the romantic interlude, the startling realization.  Leopold Bloom takes a shit in his outhouse.  That sort of thing.

This sort of indulgence is both overdone and extremely hard to do well, so while it isn’t something to dismiss entirely, it is a habit to be aware of and use sparingly, especially when you’re writing fiction primarily intended to entertain.  There’s a fine line between exciting sword and sorcery with an existential tone and a mind-numbing navel-gaze that happens to feature swords.

The readers who are apt to find the misadventures of Karthanas of Lanthea interesting are unlikely to be terribly interested in a detailed exploration of his private thoughts while trimming his fingernails.  They want–and I want, at the end of the day–action.  Tension.  Drama.  Violence.  Desperate last stands.  And they want them strung fairly close together, with maybe a few quiet moments in between.  You’ve got to earn that moment where your antihero looks out over the desolate ruins of a forgotten city and thinks about the cycle of history, or the futility of progress.

The best video games (the Half-Life series comes to mind, particularly Half-Life 2 and its episodes) tell their story through a balance of action (usually combat) and downtime (usually solo roaming adventure).  Both types of content are engaging, and the downtime content is necessary to give the player a break from the relentless adrenaline.  But if I had to put a ratio to that balance, I’d say that what you’re looking for is 70/30 action to downtime.  Keep in mind that “action,” in the context of a novel, can mean spirited dialogue, dynamic plot revelations, and major decisions made as well as something obvious like combat.

Oddly enough, I do find that the slower moments are often my favorite: I’m one of the few people I’ve known who actually likes the first third of The Fellowship of the Ring.  I like build-ups.  But you still need that balance.  Adventure?  Excitement?  A Jedi craves not these things.  Except when she does.

“Self-Publishing Is For Losers”

When I’m not doing my own writing, I’m also a co-founder of Evil Toad Press, an indie publishing company that offers a variety of editing, design, and marketing services related to self-publishing.  We’ve written a self-publishing guide called Self-Publishing Is For Losers: The Evil Toad Press Guide to Self-Publishing, and are in the process of prepping a Kickstarter to fund its production.  For now, however, you can watch our kickass book trailer: