Archive for the ‘On Writing’ Category

How to Write Book Two

Planning to write a series or stuck in the thick of it?

A stand-alone book is one thing, but there are some unique questions an author must ask themselves when writing a series.

I’ve only just begun the second book of my PSS Chronicles series, so I thought I would blog about this topic while it was still fresh in my mind.

Now, whether your first book ended in a cliff-hanger or has a full story arc of its own like my YA paranormal thriller Ghost Hand, the fact is, you are continuing that story in book two. You will be using many of the same characters, presumably the same world, possibly the same setting, and many of the plot components of book one will need to be expanded in book two. Here are some questions you should consider before launching straight into that second book.

POV:   Will you use the same point-of-view character or characters for book two?  When answering this, keep in mind that fans of book one may be disappointed if you switch POV characters, particularly if book one was from one POV or in first person. They got to know and love being that character, and they’re probably picking up book two to be that character again. You don’t want to lose readers you gained in book one by changing the POV they loved.

Story Time-Lapse:  How much time has elapsed in the story since book one? Does the story start up the minute after the first book left off? In most series, time has elapsed between books, and the reader must quickly be brought up to speed without the author doing too much telling or info dumping. Try to start the second book in a place of action, and let the characters slowly fill in, through internal thought or dialogue, what has happened since the last book.

Book Time-Lapse:  How much time has elapsed since the writing of the first book? If you are writing your second book directly after the first, then there is much less chance readers will have forgotten anything major from book one. However, if you are writing the second book years after book one, then you must take into consideration that readers may not remember much of it.

Marketing Questions: How is marketing the second book of a series different than marketing the first?

Book Two Covers:  If you’ve done it right, the first book of your series will have a distinct look, style and brand. Be sure to keep this same brand for the cover of subsequent books. Use the same designer, illustrator, cover model, and colors, if at all possible. If that isn’t possible, be sure to have your new cover designer looking at the first book cover and trying to match it. I also think it is very important to clearly mark the second book as the second in a series. Most people don’t want to buy a book or pick it up at the library, only to find, when they get home, that there is a book they should have read before it.

Shelf-Life: Try to imagine yourself as a reader or book buyer going into a book store or library and finding the second book of your series. Book one is all sold out, so all they have to go on as a selling point of your series is book two. What crucial information should be in and on that book for you to sell a book to that person that day? First, there should be clear information directly in the front of book two on where that buyer can get book one for themselves, both as an e-book and in print. Preferably, this would include a short hooking blurb about book one. This makes it more likely that they will buy book two that day, confident that they will like and can get book one soon. Second, the first chapter of book two should have a strong hook, something that even someone unfamiliar with the series would find interesting, rather than confusing. Ideally, you want book two to do much more than sell itself; you also want it to sell book one, and any subsequent books of the series.

Two-Directional Marketing: Most importantly, don’t forget to market book two to all the fans who read and loved book one. You already have an audience, and your job is to keep it, and build it. So, don’t forget to market back towards the audience you have, and forward to the audience you hope to gain.  

Bringing the Reader Up to Speed:  There are several different approaches that can be used in a second book to bring readers up to speed on the story.

The synopsis method: One way is to have a 1-2 page synopsis of the first book at the beginning of the second book, but I do not recommend this. You want to sell your first book, not just your second book. Why would a reader/buyer bother seeking out your first book if they can read a summation of it right there in book two. Plus, this kind of synopsis can’t help but dumb down the wonderful plot and twists of your first book and make it seem dull in comparison. The most you should use in your second book is the hook or cover blurb of the first book, along with some glowing review blurbs.

The info-dump method: This is where the writer uses the characters and the first few chapters to tell the reader what happened in book one. Again, this is not recommended because you want the reader/buyer to need to read book one so you can sell it too. Not to mention that info-dumping annoys the reader and impedes good storytelling.

The integrated method:  It takes skill and some thought, but the ideal scenario would be to integrate just enough information from book one to make book two understandable and interesting. This info should be sprinkled subtly throughout the first few chapters of book two as it builds to its own unique story arc.

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Writers Associations: A Monday Rant


It is Monday again and that means I’m feeling annoyed. Add to that the fact that I have a mild migraine, and what would be better than a little blogging vent-fest?

Today I am going to rant about writers organizations and associations, and I feel that I am particularly qualified to do this because I have founded one myself

Along with founding, developing, and serving as President of SpecFicNZ, the national association for writers of speculative fiction in and from New Zealand, for the last three years, I am also a member of numerous writer forums, associations and organizations.

And what I have found disappointing in most of my experiences with writers associations and groups is that once you pay your membership fee and get your welcome e-mail (and maybe a membership pin in the mail) you are pretty much done getting anything from that org.

Now, I know what some of you are going to say, “You have to give to an organization to get from an organization.” You’re going to ask me what I’ve done. Have I volunteered? Have I gone out of my way to connect? What have I done to invest myself in my new group?

I’ll tell you what I did. I signed up and paid for membership to an organization that claims it’s mission is to support writers. Not for writers to support it. I already made my initial investment. I gave first, trusting that organization to serve me, its new member.  And if I don’t get at least my membership fee worth of something without giving more, I’m not likely to trust that organization not to drain the very life out of me and leave nothing but a dry, writer-shaped husk.

Organizations have to prove themselves to their members, not the other way around.

For example, when I first started SpecFicNZ, I knew people would be skeptical to join. It was new. It was unproven. It hadn’t done anything for them. And so, for the first year, our main mission as an org was to do as much for our members as possible given the money and resources we had. We tried to ask very little of them in return, because they had already trusted us with their membership and their money.

We ran contests. We published a newsletter. We organized local face-to-face meet-ups.

And our membership grew. By a lot. But it was still very hard to get volunteers to run for our committee that second year. We hadn’t given enough yet, and I knew it. We had to prove ourselves even more. We had to give until our members felt overwhelmed by it. Until they knew they’d gotten ten times their membership fee back.

So, the second year, this last year, we ran a contest almost every month. Really good ones. We had a Kindle give-away with all our member’s e-fiction on it (bought by us). We used our member’s books (purchased by us) as give-aways and prizes. We made every effort to promote every publication, award, and contest our members achieved. And our membership grew by leaps and bounds, but I wasn’t really sure we had accomplished what I had hoped until it came time for committee nominations for next year.

Last year, we were barely able to fill our committee.

This year, people are fighting to get on it. And many of them are the same people who couldn’t bring themselves to volunteer last year.

Do you know why? Because SpecFicNZ has made some of their careers. It has launched them as writers. It has supported them in a huge way.

And all that before they did anything for it except pay a membership fee.

So, now they are ready to give back, as they should be, but the operative words there are “GIVE BACK”. They gave first, by joining. Then we gave in return. And now they are giving back. See the exchange in that. It is really kind of nice.

As for some of the other organizations I belong to, I’m feeling kind of sad. I had hoped to get my money’s worth, but I haven’t. And I seriously doubt that I will.

What has your experience with writers organizations and associations been? Do you find the expectation or onus of benefits is on the member, rather than the org? What did you think you were paying for, and what have you actually gotten?


The Devil is in the Detail: Or How to Make Your Fiction Come Alive

Today, as I was walking to the grocery store, I noticed a hospital bracelet much like the one in the picture above tossed onto the sidewalk.

I sidestepped it and kept going, but I couldn’t stop the flood of questions that bracelet evoked. “Whose bracelet was it? Why had they been in the hospital? Why had they yanked it off and tossed it outside of a grocery store?” I found myself in the store, but I wasn’t shopping for food anymore. I was shopping for story. I was looking for the meaning of that bracelet, and I wanted to go back outside, and pluck it up, and read the name on it.

And then suddenly I had a small epiphany (or as my husband calls it, “a bit of crazy”).

I knew that If I did go out and find that bracelet again, the name on it would undoubtedly be Olivia Black.

You see, Olivia Black is the main character of my YA novel Ghost Hand, and in the book Olivia does end up in the hospital. She hates hospitals (much like me), and she really hates doctors, so her hospital stay is fairly short, but the thing that I realized while standing in the produce aisle thinking about that bracelet was that I had completely forgotten to give Olivia one. In the book she doesn’t have a hospital bracelet on, and THAT is a problem.

Now, a forgotten bracelet might not seem like much to fuss about, but it is. It is these minute details- the squeak of the nurse’s thick-soled white shoes, the smell of the disinfected hallways, and the crunch of the bracelet against her wrist- that makes Olivia come alive. The Devil is in the detail.

Olivia is a fuller, more real character with that bracelet on than she is without it.

With it on, I can hear her think things like,”This is so they don’t confuse me with Rosemary’s baby, or amputate my right leg instead of my left.” or “Why is it the only two places they give out these bracelets are hospitals and amusement parks? The two places have nothing else in common, except maybe vomit.”

With that bracelet on, I can feel Olivia wanting it off. I can imagine her trying to squeeze her wrist out of it, or briefly think about gnawing off her own hand, which she decides not to do, of course, because that would definitely require further hospitalization.

I can see her walking down my street after her hospital release. I can feel the moment she realizes she still has the “mark of the hospital” on her body. I can see her tugging at her wrist. I can hear the snap of the bracelet when it breaks and she yanks it off, tossing it to the ground. I can feel her step lighten as she walks away free and unencumbered.

And I can see myself coming along only a moment later, just missing a glimpse of Olivia, the girl of my imagination, as she steps around the corner of the grocery store and out of sight.

Now, I’m off to go give Olivia a hospital bracelet.

Want to help me make her come alive for everyone? Be sure to check out my Ghost Hand Kickstarter Project and back it, or go HERE to read the first two chapters of Ghost Hand.

How to Spot a Crap Review

I went out for Mexican food with two of my bookish friends yesterday. While we waited for our food to arrive, we all whipped out our Kindles and began sharing books referrals. “Have you read this? If not, you have to get it.” “This is the best book I’ve read all year.” “Don’t bother with this one, it tanked at the end.” In fact, there really should be a Kindle app that allows you to network with your friends’ Kindles and send them book recommendations. Someone app savvy, run out and make that, please.

In general, this is how I choose to read books- from the recommendations given to me by people whose taste in books I trust. By word of mouth, if you will. NOT by review, and here’s why.

Most reviews are utter crap.

Not just indie published reviews, though they seem to excel to new levels of crapdom, but I am talking about most reviews, even traditionally published book reviews. You cannot trust reviews, my friend- on Amazon, or blog review sites, or on Goodreads. There are some good reviews there, but they are few and far between.

Many of the reviews you are reading on those sites are:

1) Paid for. Yes, you can buy reviews. For as little as $5, an author can purchase a 5 star review for Amazon. I can guarantee you that purchased reviews are not objective. You aren’t going to give a bad review if you are getting paid for it. People aren’t honest when their job depends on them being otherwise.

2) Written by relatives or friends of the author. We’ve all seen this before. When a new book comes out, especially an indie published book, the first ten reviews read like sappy hallmark cards. “This book is wonderful. The author is wonderful. She shits rainbows and classic literature. Oh, yeah, and I’m her sister.” If you are related to an author or invested in relationship with them, you review is not going to be objective, no matter how hard you try.

3) Written by people who have never read the book. Many reviews out there on the internet are written by people who have never read the book. There are Amazon reviewers who review 10+ books a day. There is no way they are reading all those books. In fact, what they do is go read a blurb of the book and regurgitate the content of that blurb as a review. This makes for a very crap review.

So, how do you know what to read or download on your Kindle if you don’t have a posse of bookish friends like I do? How do you weed out the crap reviews from the good reviews that might give you an accurate take on the book?

1) Toss out any review that has nothing bad to say.

The truth is, no book is perfect, so one can conclude that a perfect glowing review is not an accurate depiction of any book. All books have faults, and an astute reviewer (a good reviewer) will pick up on those faults and point them out to future readers. A bad reviewer, or one who is related to the author or paid for, will not. The Editorial Reviews (the official looking ones at the top) are worth a read but they will rarely have anything bad to say. If they did, the author wouldn’t include them in the book blurb.

2) Toss out any review that has nothing good to say.

Just as no book is perfect, very few books are utter rubbish. A good reviewer can find areas of strength in almost any book. A completely negative review often indicates a personal vendetta against the author or a troll reviewer who simply lives to bash the creative efforts of others. Either way, it is not going to be an objective review.

3) Toss negative reviews that begin with statements like, “I don’t normally read or like this genre.”

A person who hates romance is probably not going to give an objective review to a romance novel. Reviewers who make these kind of statements already have a pre-disposed opinion of what they are reading.

4) Toss reviews that do not refer to key story elements like plot, character development, tension, and story arc.

A good reviewer will know the elements of a good story and review those specific elements. They will talk about whether the characters were sympathetic and round (rather than flat). They will mention if the plot had holes or was solid. They will discuss the ending (without spoilers) and if it was satisfying. Reviews that don’t address story elements are very often crap reviews.

Now, after tossing all those crap reviews, read the ones that are left and you will probably get a realistic take on the quality of the book.

Or, you could just form a posse of book aficionados like I have, and go out for Mexican food once a week with your Kindle in hand.

Do you have a tip for recognizing a crap review?  Please share yours, and I’ll add it to my list.



Where Stories Come From

“Where do babies come from?” a five-year-old asks, and we hem and we haw and we wonder whether he is truly asking for the mystery to be dispelled. Does he really want to know how the magic trick is done? There are so many different levels at which you could answer. You could say he was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes that grew and grew into the radiant star he is now. You could say the stork brought him. Or you could use the scientific approach; drawing diagrams showing how slot A fits into Slot B and really gross him out.

And so the uninitiated reader asks the storyteller, “Where do stories come from?” and we find ourselves in a similar dilemma. The easiest answer, of course, is that stories come from ideas. “Aha, but where do ideas come from?” the reader shoots back. And that seems to me such a ludicrous question that I wonder if perhaps the person asking is an alien from another universe.

You see, the universe I live in has more ideas than space between atoms. Ideas are everywhere, bumping into me, filling my brain, distracting me from dinner, mugging me on the street, leaping into my cart at the grocery. I don’t have a problem finding ideas; I have trouble getting rid of them. Asking where they come from is like asking where air comes from.

But that is the mystery answer, and the reader isn’t satisfied by it. He wants to know about slot A and slot B because, frankly, he can’t see ideas. They are invisible to him and so he wants a drawing, a diagram. Perhaps someday, he’ll need a story idea in a pinch, and he wants to know exactly how to get one. You know, for emergencies.

For that sort of person, I’ve listed below several of my stories, and where the ideas for them came from.

1. Dreams: The first story I published, A Speck in the Universe, came directly from a dream about a mother swimming in a pool with her children for so long she became liquefied and her children absorbed her life essence. It was the summer we installed our back yard pool. It was a very long, hot summer.

2. Images: The second story I published, The House That Dirk Built, was born when a friend invited me to look at the old house he was renovating. He had just cleared some ancient trees that had been right next to the house and there, where the trees had been, was a series of weird hand/claw marks evenly spaced and traveling up the side of the house into an upstairs window. He asked me what I thought they were and I said, “Werewolf tracks.” He thought I was kidding. I wasn’t.

3. Swimming in Someone Else’s Shoes: The third story I had published, The Derby, was inspired by a trip to Alaska where I discovered they have fishing derbies. For these derbies they actually catch Salmon, attach prize tags to them and throw them back into the water. Most of them are never caught for the derby. After all, there are a lot of fish in the sea. I wondered what the impact might be on one poor, individual Salmon, going through his entire life with a huge, “You’ve just won a new boat” tag sticking out of his cheek. A story was born.

4. Things People Say: I have a book of quotes that I call “Straw for the Fire.” I collect quotes from things I read, things I overhear on the bus, things my husband and children say. Kids are great for generating quotes that can turn into fabulous fantasy stories. Once, when I was making the bed and my son was “helping me” by playing under the covers, he peaked his head out and said, “I love my mother’s underworld.” That hasn’t made it into a story yet, but I can guarantee you, it will.

5. Places I’ve Been: Travel is a great way to get story ideas. Going somewhere new almost always elicits a flurry of ideas in my head.  The first flash story I ever sold, Traveling by Petroglyph, was inspired by a trip to Petroglyph Beach on Wrangall Island, Alaska. It is all about travel of the most unusual kind.

6. The Media: Amazingly enough, the media can actually contain ideas if you dig deep enough. My husband is very helpful wrangling ideas for me from news blurbs and current articles, as I am famously allergic to all that “real stuff”. Once he found an article titled “Coffins at Costco” about how the famous shopping club chain was going to start selling coffins in bulk. Instant story.

7. The Stories of Others: Everyone has a story, even if they aren’t a storyteller. Good storytellers and writers are collectors of other people’s stories. My literary short story, The Comfort of Cabbages, is just such a story inspired by a dear friend’s deep loss.  Be sure if you plan to write or share someone’s story in detail, you get their permission first and pass the story by them before it ever goes public.

So there you have it, the mystery solved. Stories come from ideas, and ideas come from everything and anything.

 Now go stick slot A in slot B, and enjoy the magic.

Can Books Really Change Lives?

Books change lives. It’s a library motto. A cliche. An overused hyperbole. Or is it?

This last weekend, I was sitting in a cafe sipping a warm drink. I had just stopped at the post office where I had picked up a parcel containing a book I had ordered from Powells. I was pretty excited about the book, so I pulled it out and began skimming through the pages.

I was only a few pages in when a man came over to my table and said, “I couldn’t help noticing the book you’re reading.”  He was beaming. He was excited. Youthful joy lit up his middle-aged eyes. “That book changed my life,” he said, “so when I saw you reading it, I just had to come over and say something.” We talked about the book for a few minutes; how it had impacted him and given him confidence and freedom and a philosophy of life to embrace. We talked about when he had read it (the year after I was born), and what the world had been like then, and how much he was sure I was going to enjoy the book, a book he no longer owned but would always have a place on the shelf of his heart.

I had no doubt when that man went back to his table that the book in my hand had changed his life.

What was the book?

How to Keep Your Volkswagon Alive: a Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot by John Muir.

How can a car maintenance book change someone’s life? I don’t know. I just know it can.

When I moved to New Zealand, I made a good friend named Katie, a book lover like myself whose family was in publishing. I hadn’t know Katie long before she handed me a book. “This book changed my life,” she said. “Whenever I find a used copy if it, I buy it. I always have a collection of them and when I make a good friend, I give them one.”

I took the book home and read it, and it was an amazing book. It didn’t change my life, but I have no doubt it had changed Katie’s.

What was the book?

I am David by Anne Holm (also titled North to Freedom in the US).

I am David is a fiction book about a 12-year-old who escapes from a Communist concentration camp with little more than a compass, a sealed letter, a loaf of bread, and instructions to carry the letter to Copenhagen, Denmark.

Now, I also have a book that changed my life. It wasn’t a maintenance book, and it wasn’t a fiction book. It was a non-fiction book that helped me through one of the most challenging times in my life There I was, on the cusp of becoming a mother for the first time without any mother to guide or support me through the process, and I found a book of revelation, a gift of words revealing that I was not unique in my loneliness and quirkiness when it came to having lost my mother at the tender age of 13.

What was the book?

Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman

Each of these books and stories of change are unique, just like the people who love them and hold them dear.

Maybe it is corny and hokey and cliche, but the truth is books change lives.

What book changed your life? What book, if you saw someone reading it in a cafe, would you have to go tell them, “That book. You’ll love it. It’s special.”?

Share it below and join the tribe of believers.

For the Agony or the Ecstasy?


It has traditionally been quite popular for writers to wallow in the agony of their calling. They must write. It is an addiction, a compulsion, an internal plague that should be avoided at all costs, if one can. If not, if you are one of the poor sods preordained to this awful fate, well then, God help you because no one else will. You are going to be miserable, underpaid, frustrated, misunderstood, suicidal and likely abuse various substances just to get by.

And there seems to be some kind of snobbery connected with this mentality. If writing has chosen you against your will, if you do not go quietly into that dark night but bellyache all the way, you must be one of The Great Artists. The Muses have raped you, poor thing, but at least they have chosen you.

All this is very odd to me because I thoroughly enjoy being a writer. I am not a victim of it. I am its willing lover. I chose it. I could have done a million other things well, but I chose this because it gives me more pure joy than anything I have ever participated in. It’s better than sex, drugs, and chocolate. To use Joseph Campbell terms it is my bliss.  When I write, time disappears. I don’t squeeze out daily words. I walk in worlds of my own making. I meet the characters I have called into being and I am their goddess, heroine, historian, geographer, and wise woman. I create rules of magic; I birth the monsters and craft the angel’s wings.

And so when I read about someone’s agonized writing, I think they might be in the wrong career. The Muses have wooed me, my friend. We sleep together every night, our limbs tangled in the fluttering pages of my words. Writing is my ecstasy.

The best book I have ever found on writing is Jane Yolen’s book, Take Joy. In it she asks, “How could I not approach such other worlds with joy?” I have that quote hanging over my writing desk, and I ask myself that every day.

Of course, like any other worthy thing, writing has its challenges, its bumps in the road, if you will. But even these are not agony (except maybe submitting to agents:). They are just obstacles along the journey, hills to climb, mountains to scale, a landscape of reality on the way to a good book.

But, I have noticed a trend lately toward less agony and more ecstasy in the commentary of the writers around me. I don’t know if this is because I have learned to block and tune-out the agonizers, or if there is actually a movement toward feeling more positive about the writing process as a whole. I’ve even wondered if perhaps the rise of the ability to have more power, ownership, (and royalties) over the process of one’s work (indie publishing) has made a difference.

What about you. Do you you write in agony or in ecstasy? Has that changed over time, and if so, why? What is the most agonizing part of writing for you, and what gives you the most joy?


Cover Design Interview with Kura Carpenter

Writers write books. And in this age of indie and self-publishing sometimes we design covers for them. Good covers. Bad covers. Covers that attract readers, or repel them. The truth is, not all writers are good cover designers or have the artistic, computer, or technological skill to pull off a good cover.

Sometimes we need to hire someone, but that can be expensive, and where and how does one find a good cover designer?

I am pleased to say, I recently “met” book cover designer Kura Carpenter through SpecFicNZ, the national speculative fiction writers organization I started in New Zealand while I lived there.

Kura is from Dunedin, New Zealand and has designed for authors all over the world, including a recent cover for Steam Press for the novel Tropic of Skorpeo’ by author Michael Morrissey to be released later this year.

Kura kindly agreed to let me interview her about cover design, so here it is. I asked and she answered. All you have to do it enjoy!

Kura, how did you get into book cover design?

A couple of years ago my friend, Justin Elliot, asked me to create the cover for his YA Fantasy adventure, A Dark Future. I really enjoyed it, but I pretty much wrote it off as  a one-time opportunity. Then in 2011 I met Peter Jenks who was about to release a non-fiction guide as an ebook, and I increasingly became aware that ebooks were really taking off and that publishing was changing and I could design for anyone, anywhere.

What is your favorite book cover of all times?

I don’t have a single favorite cover, but I do have a favorite design era. I love the Art Nouveau & Arts and Crafts influenced covers of the late 1800s. Will Bradley’s cover for ‘In Russet and Silver’ published in 1894 is a good example.

What is the hardest genre to design a cover for? The easiest?

As I’m primarily a photo manipulator, I find the hardest is Historicals because sourcing photos of models in historically-accurate clothes can be challenging. I find the easiest are those with a strong emotional content, so for example romance and horror.  

What is your favorite kind of book to design a cover for?

I enjoy doing thrillers most because I like creating a graphic that will tell its own story, and thinking in terms of visual cues as to the tone of the book is great fun. I also enjoy doing sci-fi because I get a chance to flex my Photoshop muscles and create special effects >> Blue lightning, anyone?  

On average, how long does it take you to design a cover?

The length depends on the genre and the number of base photos required to build-up the graphic. A sci-fi/fantasy cover will usually be heavy on props and special effects and therefore they take longer. For example the fantasy cover I created for James E Thomas Reed Butler’s Story’ required ten images, whereas the non-fiction ‘Girls and Dating’ by PM Jenks only required one. But in terms of hours, I’d say on average 8 to 12 hours.



Authors are often surprised at how little say they have over their book cover with a traditional publisher. How hands-on is the process if they commission one with you?

That’s entirely up to the author. I personally like a collaborative effort, and so I encourage the author to have a lot of input. It’s important to me to understand the author’s taste and style, after all I’m creating a cover that needs to fit their individual brand.

Are there any big no-no’s of cover design? (Things one should never do, ie- have a relative design your cover, use a certain font for the title, etc)

I think it’s very important to project the right tone, and I think people sometimes forget that fonts also have a tone. To demonstrate this I’ve created a simple graphic where I’ve reversed the normally associated conventions with two fonts.

And as long as your relative works in graphics, I don’t see the problem with getting their help. :p

Are there any key principles for cover design? (things you should always do– ie- include genre clues on cover, always have cleavage- hehe)

I feel genre clues are extremely important, as they are all about setting a tone. Any adult having grown up as a book lover will have developed an unconscious but very sophisticated ability to interpret and value a cover design through visual cues and symbols. So for me, the key to good covers begins with understanding the market. What a particular audience wants and expects to see, and what those things mean. For example, imagine a man standing in a forest a night. What genre is that? Not enough info? Ok then, he wears a cloak and holds a lantern… Are you thinking Historical about now? But what if I add, the lantern is illuminated by captured Fairies…?

I saw a recent discussion on-line about the use of gender neutral covers for YA versus gender specific covers (covers that feature a guy protagonist, or, more often, a girl protagonist).  Books like Divergent, Legend, and Hunger Games had very gender neutral covers. What’s your opinion on the roll gender plays in cover design and appeal?

To me this question precedes the design process, it’s really about how publishers calculate their sales. Any time a cover is gender specific the publisher is effectively risking losing 50% of the potential audience. I predict with the prevalence of ebooks, it will become common for YA books to have 2 covers, a solution which isn’t cost effective in traditional print publishing.

How do you balance author input with your own expertise? In other words, what do you do with a client who keeps insisting on bad cover design ideas?

I’ve never had a client like that, but I have wondered what I would do if I was in that situation. On one hand, I’m employed by the author, therefore I should deliver what they want. But on the other hand if I could see what they wanted would be detrimental to their sales, then I would have to say so. I simply couldn’t do something I felt would effectively ruin the purpose of the cover. Every product has a function to serve and fundamentally, Book Covers are adverts.

Can you talk about the components involved in back cover design? What does the author need to bring to the table? Book blurb, a one sentence hook, recommendations and review quotes from other authors, author bio? What about the author photo? Do you recommend one or not, and why?

The more an author can bring to the back, the better. A blurb is essential. A one sentence hook is great for catching the eye and generating intrigue. Recommendations and reviews make purchasing the book easier for someone browsing, because people like to go where others have gone before — as in, it reduces the risk in their minds.   And as for photos, I think they’re a good idea. Readers are naturally curious and sharing a photo will help establish a personal connection with them. I feel a photo has a psychological value similar to a signing your real name to an important document. A value that says, this is the real me, and I stand behind this book.

Thanks Kura! Be sure to check out Kura’s work and website HERE

Breaking In: How to Sell Your First Novel

Last weekend at Norwescon 35 in Seattle, I had the chance to attend several workshops and panels on writing.

The first one I attended was a panel called Breaking In with panelists Jay Lake (author), Gordon Van Gelder (editor) and Tina Connolly (author).

Since I am currently shopping around my first novel, I was eager to hear what these three had to say and it didn’t disappoint.

Here’s a basic point by point run down of what the panelist suggested for success in Breaking In with that first book deal.

1. Write a really good book.

All panelists agreed that this has to come first before anything else. Both Jay and Tina talked about the importance of improving your craft, of working daily to become a better writer. They each talked about their Trunk Novels, a trunk novel being a novel you write that isn’t good enough to submit to agents and publishers and so it eventually gets stuck in a trunk somewhere. A trunk novel is practice, it is an apprenticeship for later novel writing. No one sits down to write a trunk novel. No one says, “Let me spend the next 6-24 months writing something that isn’t good enough.” It is only after the fact that an author realizes what they’ve written is a trunk novel, a practice novel that they wouldn’t necessarily want to be their debut in the publishing world. And most successful authors have more than one trunk novel. I think Tina said her new debut novel Ironskin was her sixth or seventh novel written. Jay also has a stack full of trunk novels. While some authors do debut with the first novel they’ve written, the point was driven home that good writing takes years of practice and perseverance.

2. Breaking In means different things to different people.

Breaking In is relative. To some Breaking In means getting that first novel published with one of the major publishing companies. To others it means making a certain amount in royalties. To others it means being able to quit their day job and write full time. To some it means making the New York Times Bestseller list. To still others it simply means seeing their work in print, however that is accomplished. As writers and individuals, we get to define our own goals for Breaking In.

Jay pointed out that in the field of writing Breaking In is an ever-receding horizon. He compared getting his first novel published to graduating from high school. While you are in high school, graduation is the end all and the be all of high school. After graduation, it isn’t that big of a deal because you have your whole adult life looming ahead of you. Before you have a novel published, getting that first novel out is the “biggest thing ever” but afterwards, it’s just something you did on the way to your writing career as a whole.

This led to the discussion that a writing career is a process, not a means to an end. After the first novel comes the second, and the third and so on. This can be a good thing if you love writing, but if you are a person who needs an end to your means, it can be exhausting and frustrating. You will never get done writing. You will never reach the pinnacle of your career. There is no top to this mountain. It just keeps going up and up. Or more likely, it goes up and down (think of a roller-coaster). The worst case scenario is that it never goes up, or it goes up and back down for good. The point is writing isn’t an event, it is a lifestyle.

3) There is no standard way to Break In.

Traditional publishing. Self-publishing. Indie publishing. Internet publishing. Getting a book deal from your blog writing. An agent seeks you out. You find an agent. You don’t use an agent and submit directly to publishers. You get your book noticed by way of a contest or an internet book vetting venue (like Webook), There are as many paths on the road to getting published as there are writers seeking publication. And in the end, no one really cares how you Broke In (except perhaps other writers wanting to emulate you), they just care about reading a good book.

4) How easy it is to Break In given the current financial and publishing climate?

I was expecting to hear bad news on this one, but this was the question where Gorden Van Gelder began to weigh in and what he said was actually quite encouraging for new authors. He said it is currently easier to Break In with a first novel than ever before, and here is why.

In the old days, when information about book sales was not released to the general public, publishing houses often signed a new author with the intent of building their career over a series of published books. In other words, if their first book didn’t do well, that was okay. Sales would likely build on the next book, and the next, until they had a profitable author on their lists. In this way the author’s profit margin was expressed in a slowly increasing upward arc over their career.

But this is the age of free information. Book sales and profits are plastered all over the internet the moment a book goes on sale. If an author shows a downward trend on sales, everyone knows it, including the publishing house investors. They are less likely to publish a second or third book if sales aren’t great. They are no longer as willing to support an author through a sales slump, or see them as a long term investment. And that sounds like bad news, I know.

But there is an upside. New authors are the unknown entity. We don’t have a sales slump. We don’t have sales period. For this reason, publishing houses are willing to take a greater risk with a brand new author because it can be argued that there is only potential for an upward arc in sales. You can only go up from zero. However, if that first book doesn’t do very well, or if sales plummet, publishing houses are much less likely to invest in future books or an authors career in hopes they can pull it out of a dive. It is much easier these days to publish a first book. It is, however, much harder to publish a second or third.

5) Breaking In with a series is a good idea.

Because of the issue mentioned in item 4–the need to show an upward trend in sales beyond the first book, all the panel members agreed that writing a first book as a potential series is a great idea. Publishers are looking for this. They want to sign multiple book series deals, because if the first book of a series snags an audience, that audience is likely to stick with the series, and that audience is likely to build over the life of the series. And that equals an upward arc in sales to show to investors.

However, it was suggested to write a first book that can stand alone, but has potential to be a series. This way you leave your options open if that first book doesn’t do well. If you are shopping a book that is a potential series, mention that in you query letter. Say it is a stand alone book with series potential, or something like that.

To sum up the panel, Jay said this (not a direct quote)

“The key to Breaking In it to be psychotically persistent. Write because you love to. Then write more. And some more. Keep writing and keep submitting and eventually you will Break In. The only thing between you and Breaking In is self-doubt and the urge to stop. Don’t ever stop and you’ll eventually make it.”

He also said, “The publishing world is open to new talent. But the key word there is TALENT. Work on your craft and you will become that talent.”

Thanks so much to the panelists for your sage wisdom.

Guide to Writing Paranormal Novels


Friendly. Useful. Current. And I’m in it with a long chapter on character development.

Put out by Dragon Moon Press in September 2011 and written by a collection of well-known authors for new authors, The Complete Guide to Writing Paranormal Novels: Volume 1 covers a wide range of topics necessary for building your first paranormal novel. Paranormal novels are found in all sections of the fiction bookstore. One of the most prevalent forms of fantasy masquerading as romances, mysteries, general fiction and urban fantasy, this guide has tips and topics specific to writing a variety of paranormal novels.

This guide will provide a solid path to completing that first novel by offering detailed help and reference material to get you writing.

Available now in paperback at AMAZON, GOODREADS, and IN KINDLE VERSION.


Ripley Patton lives in a 22-foot camper in the woods of Southern Illinois with a cat named Lemmy. Her two young adult children, a daughter and a son, are her favorite people. When Ripley's not out exploring nature and getting her hands dirty, she's usually reading or writing a book.

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