Thursday, June 30, 2011

Whoo hoo! From nothing to #8 in five hours!

Amazon made my mystery collection, Waiter There's a Clue In My Soup!, free this morning. I have sold almost 5000 copies already, and it's the top free short story for Kindle. It's number eight of all free Kindle titles. (I beat Dostoyevsky! I beat Charles Dickens!)

Since Amazon separates free and paid titles -- and places them side by side on the same page -- it's really cool to see it sitting there on the Kindle best sellers page right next to James Patterson and Janet Evanovich. (And Scrabble!)

I'm not getting paid for this, but freebies tend to boost sales over all. And this has sold in less than a day more copies than my previously free books sold combined, in a whole month.

I'm going to out for a celebratory dinner. I wanna see even better numbers when I get home.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Thoughts on the Premise of a Mystery Series

The title of Dashiell Hammett's novel The Thin Man does not refer to its hero Nick Charles. It refers to the object of the investigation. However, this is ambiguous, partly because Hammett doesn't necessarily want you to zero in on one suspect. So Hollywood chose to assume it referred to Nick, and named all subsequent stories variations on "Thin Man."

The title of my current work-in-progress, The Man Who Did Too Much, is not ambiguous that way. It refers to one of the central characters. Since it's a story with multiple points of view, however, it could refer to him as a main character, or it could refer to him as a subject of mystery and revelation.

And I'll be honest with you, until recently, I wasn't sure which of those it was myself. As I write, I am constantly making choices about point of view and revelations, and of course red herrings too. All these choices go back to the basic question of who and what the story is about... and about the premise of the series as well.

The premise of a series is like The Dude's rug, it ties the whole thing together. It's what we attatch to, and think of when we think of a whole series.

With the modern cozy mystery, the premise is generally defined by a "hook." It's a very practical an descriptive thing: a millionaire cartographer detective, or a scrap-booking detective or a cat groomer detective. (A whole series about cat vacuuming? That's almost scary.) You don't know from the hook what the detective is like, but the reader is attracted first by the subject, and then gets to know the characters.

In the old days, it was very different. Since it was normal for a publisher to allow the audience to discover the series over many books, many of the great series didn't have any hook at all. If you were to describe them in the sort of practical terms I used above, they would sound really boring: Miss Marple was a small town spinster. Hercule Poirot was a retired Belgian detective. Ellery Queen and Lord Peter Whimsey were young men who dabbled in criminology. Columbo was a LAPD detective.

In stories like that, the hook is in the flavor and the character traits -- nothing that can go into a logline or blurb properly. But once people experienced it, they were hooked. Then all you had to say was "A new Miss Marple" or "a new episode of Columbo" and that was it.

Those stories have a premise which goes beyond a hook. (Series with hooks can also have deeper premise -- and those that last generally do.) For instance, with Columbo, the premise of the series is about arrogance behind murder, and how that very arrogance will fold under the superior pressure of humble persistence. The Miss Marple series is about Nemesis; the fuzzy pink shawl is a disguise. Since the authorities tend to fall down on the job, she is the disguised goddess of divine retribution. She notices all and she does not flinch. The Nero Wolfe series, on the other hand, isn't about justice at all - not as a series (some individual books are). The Wolfe series is about Archie's herculean task of wrangling Wolfe into doing his job so they can pay the bills.

Each individual novel will have its own premise, and the series may have additional common threads, but the flavor of the overall series will be something that can drive the series from story to story.

And that's the kind of series I want to write. So....

(NOTE: I am mulling about the deeper nature of the series for my current book. I do not give any plot spoilers in this post, however some readers like to discover the nature of a series for themselves, and those readers may want to skip the rest of this.)

This brings me back to the title of this book. The Man Who Did Too Much. Is that the subject or the object of the story?

From the start, I've thought of the answer as "both." It's a dual protagonist story, and so it works both ways. However, the question has persisted for me when I think about the series. When ever I come up with a new title, it falls into "The Man Who..." pattern. Is that right for the series? It seems wrong, considering who the protagonist is, but no other titles appeal to me.

After all, it's clear that Karla is the actual detective. She fits into a long tradition: the apparently dizzy but really very bright observer. Pamela North, Miss Marple. But since I like cozy adventure, another tradition also seems to fit her: the slightly dizzy dame who gets herself into fixes and calls on her mysterious secret agent friend to help.  It's the lighter side of suspense -- where the story is driven by the character's tendency to get into trouble.

And I hope it's not a spoiler to tell you that that is not the right pattern for Karla.

Oh, sure, she will get herself into sticky situations, but only after it becomes necessary, later in the story. But as an inciting incident? Has Miss Marple ever started a story by getting herself in a fix? While Pam North was once or twice menaced by a bad guy, she did not create those situations. Her natural habitat was her own living room at martini time. And though Karla has guts, she is practically agoraphobic. She's like... Nero Wolfe.

And what is Nero Wolfe (and Miss Marple and Mrs. North) but an Armchair Detective. And what do armchair detectives have? Someone else to do the work -- to bring the mystery to them.

I finally figured out that if this story has a classic meddling amateur sleuth model, then the person who gets himself into trouble is George. His whole life is one mass of trouble. He can't help but inject himself into the lives of others. Furthermore, while he has brains and knows how to use them, he prefers not to. He leads with his heart every time.

So I have finally accepted the idea that this series is about George -- not just the first book, but the whole series. It may be in Karla's pov a lot, and she may be the detective. But George is the seeker. George is the catalyst.

So in the end, even though there are plenty of books with similar titles, I think I will have to stick with THE MAN WHO DID SOMETHING OR OTHER as the title pattern. And the series will likely be called "Starling and Marquette."

The underlying premise of a series is also important because it provides conflict to the series. If it's rich enough, it will hold up through a long series.

For instance, the immediate problem of the beginning of this story is that he and his not-quite-a-girlfriend need to face their feelings for each other. If that's all there is to it, the story is over as soon as they either say "I love you" or break up.

But when the dynamic of the story is based on the fact that George, who seems so controlled and polished on the outside, has a heart which is an utterly out-of-control mess; that's an eternal struggle. It doesn't matter if he makes the right choice, he will always be struggling. And for Karla her scattered hermit tendencies are in conflict with her keen observations and honest compassion (not to mention her need to make a living). These are the kinds of conflicts which drive new action.

And knowing this ties the whole series together.

See you in the funny papers.

Write-A-Thon Update: Some Productivity Strategies

I haven't actually done my writing session for the day. Today was a work day, and I also had obligations after work. So it's almost midnight, and I'm just getting started. But I will get in at least a token session before bed.

Here are a couple of technques and practices I'm trying to keep this dare on the move;

1.) Get the butt out the chair.

Or as the song says "Stand up and type until you hear the bell." I have mentioned my shoulder problems, and my tendency to get RSIs. I'm going to post about this overall subject later, but for now I'll just say: writing is not good for your health. One of the causes of RSIs is an overall lack of muscle tone. Another is working in the exact same position all the time.

Solution; work standing at the counter at least two sessions a day. This is better for me physically anyway, and it allows me to move around a lot. Every time I pause to think, I dance around and jump and think. (I don't have to make myself do it -- it just comes naturally if I'm on my feet.) At least I can do this if the cat does not interfere. Which leads me to:

2.) Cat management.

That's not going so well. I put a cat bed on the kitchen counter RIGHT next to the computer. He's currently on the other side of the computer, tangled in the power cable, very uncomfortable, his chin resting on a plastic container of grape tomatoes. Purring. At least it's better than tap dancing on the keyboard while I try to type. Sigh.

No wait! Solution found! I tried to take a picture of him because he looked cute. He moved immediately to the cat bed. (Of course, now he's trying to dump crockery on my head from the cabinets above.)

3.) Live word counter (instead of a bell).

I don't like MS Word. At all. I don't like ANY fancy schmancy word processor. I use it when I have to, but I prefer to compose in a plain text editor. (For those of you who read manuscripts for me, this is why I use _underscores_ to mark italics.) The problem is that Apple's TextEdit doesn't have a word count feature.

Enter NanoCount, a nifty little program that monitors whatever you're typing in TextEdit, and displays your word count and a progress bar in a little window. I find being able to glance at my progress not only tells me how much more I should be writing, but also gives me a warm glow of accomplishment. It makes me challenge myself to go just a little more before I'm done with a writing session. "Oh, maybe another 57 words to round it up to the nearest hundred," I'll say. And then I'll overshoot and have to write 94 more words to get it to the next 100. (It helps to be obsessive compulsive.)

4.) Daily Documents, and periodic editing sprees.

To take best advantage of NanoCount, I find it's good to start with an empty document, and type everything there for the day so I don't have to do any math. Part of the point of a tool like NanoCount is immediacy.

But that leaves me with a problem. I don't write in chronological order (or any logical order), so knitting together the pieces will be necessary later. Also, I'm finishing a book which is two thirds done, and I have some great bits and dialog and twists which need to be worked into the new material (or the new material worked into the old).

So one of the things I hope to do on Tuesdays and Thursdays is to knit things together in Word. That should involve a token amount of new writing, too. But generally, it will be easier to do on a day I was at work all day.

In the meantime....

Here is a little more art for the day. After playing with art at work today, I took another look at my preliminary font tests and decided I had a problem. The design looks a little too much like a kid's book. I need to work on ways to get more copy space for the title and name. I also found my font and some new references. I'll talk about both of those later. But for now, here are a few more variations on the design. (The art is still a preliminary sketch, but I have to admit I'm beginning to really like the simplicity of it in a thumbnail....)

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Creating the Cover: Preliminary Fonts and Color Test

When I do a cover, the real heavy duty font work tends to come at the end. I will shop around for the right look, the right color, the right effect, all the way through the process. And at the end I put it all together.

However, fonts are also important early in the process -- especially in this modern day of online purchasing. With ebooks, your customers may never see anything but a thumbnail. Even with paper books, if a customer buys online, they won't see the full sized cover until after they've bought it.

So it's important that your title and name are legible at a very small size. (Even if the subtitles are not legible, and the picture is not clear.) Color also plays into legibility, as well as how the design looks overall.

But the big reason I wanted to look at fonts right now is because I need to know if my design, it's size and layout will work with fonts. And I find that the answer is.... maybe.

Here is a new concept sketch which I did in the class I'm sitting in on. We were playing with color combinations, and the instructor made a couple of suggestions about the foreground figures. I changed the positions of the figures to be more dynamic -- off to the side, facing the castle at more of an angle. I could then make the swashbuckling shadow bigger, and the figure of Alex smaller. This color test is interesting -- matching the frame with Alex and a hot color makes Alex pop. I also simplified the design by dropping the water layer.

It still needs thought and work, but I think this is a good design to test for how it will work with fonts.

The four images below are at "thumbnail" size, which is the size people will see in Amazon lists. I basically took a bunch of Art Deco fonts of different weights, plus another font more associated with swashbucklers, and tried them out. (I'll talk about the pros and cons of those fonts later, when I get to the point of actually making a choice.)

Okay, on looking at this, it's clear that legibility is not much of an issue with this design. However, the image really does dominate the design. I don't have much flexibility to add a subtitle (even an illegible one). And I don't have room to do that "breakout" on the castle roof.

But I really like this design concept.

I like the way the foreground figure of Alex becomes a part of the frame, so it feels like a logo. (It's not strong enough yet, but I'll work on it.) That could be the branding element for other stories in the series. A different swashbuckler pose and a different adventure setting behind the same frame on every book in the series. Plus I think it's something which could work GREAT for future stories with other characters -- a flapper silhouette for Lady Pauline, for instance.

In the meantime, I've got another 500-600 words to write tonight, so see you in the funny papers....

Day 2 - 1243 Words

Made it past my 1200 word daily goal, though I wanted to get further, because I'd like to slack off on work days. I've got a bunch of things to do, and I'm already behind.

Tomorrow I'll post a little on the strategies I'm using for this dare. We'll see if they actually work....

(And coming up in a few minutes -- the next "Covers" post.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Day 1 - 1527 Words

And we're off!

I started writing for the Clarion Write-A-Thon at midnight last night, because I had an appointment with a plate of dim sum and Mr. Tow Mater this afternoon. (Cars 2 is splendid, especially if you're into a kid's version of more grown up action movies. They also did a wonderful job of creating the full, international world of cars.)

For the writing: I recast a minor character who was gumming up the works. He is a rival/colleague of George's and the person whose "case" this is. He just wasn't working. Something was clashing or not fitting in or something.

Then I was thinking about a local politician who has zero charisma, and I realized that was my problem. I was trying to make this character too slick, too impressive, with a kind of nasty faux charm. Because George is earnest and not really slick at all on the inside, I didn't think about the fact that George is really quite slick and impressive on the outside. It's a veneer, but because he is earnest on the inside, he kinda blows everybody out of the water on those points.

What I need is someone utterly charmless. Someone who is unlike George, and who George simply cannot impress. Which is the chink in George's armor. (Well, okay, ONE of the chinks in his armor. It's shiny armor but rather filled with chinks. But it lets more air in that way. Not as stuffy inside.) George is susceptible to criticism.

And Karla isn't.

Okay, so it's late, I'm tired, and I've got a big day of writing tomorrow.

See you in the funny papers.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Weekly Preview, and Update (The Day Before The Dare)

Tomorrow - Sunday - the Clarion Write-a-thon begins.

It lasts six weeks, for the duration of the Clarion workshop, and ends August 6th. During this dare, I will be mainly blogging my progress. I'll continue the "Creating the Cover" series on Tuesday, and the secondary character interviews with authors on Fridays.

I'll post formal progress reports on Wednesdays, but other than that, my posts will mostly look like this:
Day 1 - 1202 words.
Phew, just made it. Had some difficulty with this, and fun with that.

I'll probably include some thoughts on various writing issues as they come up, but those will mostly be short. Now and then they will be one of my longer rambles. I'll try not to be boring.

When I first started this blog, that's how I structured my posts -- word count and a few comments about progress and sometimes a little more. I started getting more formal mainly because I have so much to say, and I needed some time management. But I like getting back to the roots of the blog.

One caveat: the more I blog my progress, the more I say about the story. I am careful to avoid plot spoilers, but I will be talking about things like the premise of the overall series arc, and the true nature of major characters. If you are the sort of reader who likes to discover these things for yourself, you may want to read with caution.

The posting schedule for this week is as follows:

  • Everyday: At the end of the day I'll post word count and general progress. (This will probably be sometime in the wee hours of the morning EST.)
  • Tuesday: Creating the Cover: Choosing Fonts (and a new concept sketch)
  • Wednesday: Progress Report
  • Thursday: Thoughts about the W.I.P.: the "premise" of a mystery series.
  • Friday: Interview to be announced

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Character Friday: Elizabeth Spann Craig

Today's guest is Elizabeth Craig, writer of several cozy mysteries series put out by Penguin and Midnight Ink. She writes one of my favorite mystery blogs, Mystery Writing is Murder, and is definitely my favorite person on Twitter -- where she tweets lots of links to great posts and articles about writing and mystery she finds on the web.

Elizabeth will tell us about a secondary character in her Memphis Barbeque series: Cherry, a docent at Graceland who is fond of wearing a motorcycle helmet, even when she's not on a bike.

Camille: First, what made you create Cherry?

Elizabeth: I needed someone outrageous, someone that my protagonist could play straight-man to. I lived in Alabama for years and we'd get the most horrible storms there--destructive tornadoes that would frequently strike in the middle of the night. I had neighbors who made me smile with their tornado plan--they'd sit in their basement with their bike helmets on their heads. Somehow, this little strand from my past ended up working its way into my secondary character.

Camille: Sounds like Cherry is partly there to bring out your main character. How does she reflect or contrast with Lulu?

Elizabeth: Cherry is a little flashy, a little outrageous. She says things that Lulu might only think. She offers a completely different perspective on the suspects and the mystery that are useful to Lulu as she tries to solve the case.

Cherry also shares a similar or complementary sense of humor with my protagonist, which leads to fun dialogue exchanges between the two. I think she makes my protagonist funnier than she might ordinarily be. But Cherry is also outrageous and doesn't have much of a filter when she talks--she embarrasses Lulu sometimes and sets up minor conflict.

Camille: What makes her special to you?

Elizabeth: She's eccentric. I think most writers are eccentric, too, and that trait is just really approachable and endearing to me. This is also a character who can help drive the plot, screw up, save the day....she's multi-purpose.

Camille: Do you have more planned for Cherry?

Elizabeth: Cherry was introduced in Delicious and Suspicious, the first book in the Memphis Barbeque series. But she strong-armed me into more of a sidekick role for the Delicious sequel, Finger Lickin’ Dead. Originally, I hadn't planned on including her as much because she's one of those characters that could become a scene-stealing, stage-hog. Keeping that in mind, I was careful to work on the dynamics between Cherry and my protagonist, Lulu, so that Lulu didn't fade away during her stage time with Cherry. Since she behaved herself well in the second book, Cherry also figures fairly prominently in Hickory Smoked Homicide, my upcoming November release.

Elizabeth’s latest book, Finger Lickin’ Dead, released June 7th. Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011.

She also keeps the Writer's Knowledge Base--the Search Engine for Writers, and you can find her on Twitter: @elizabethscraig

(For those interested in reading more of these secondary character interviews, I used to do them on Wednesdays and didn't always call them "Character Friday" -- so the best way to find them all is to click on the "interview" label in the footer of this post.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

How Readers Find Books (These Days)

One thing I hear a lot, when I tell people about search engines and Google Juice and how the internet is helping readers find books, is this:

"But I never search for books on Google. How could I search for a book I haven't even heard of? Who are these mutants who find books that way?"

Well, yeah. Nobody searches for books they haven't heard of, at least not with a search engine. It's impossible. You have to type in what you're looking for.

And yet, Google helps readers find books they've never heard of.

To understand how, you first have to think about how readers find books at all. There are many ways, but I'm going to start with the one that's a lynch pin to the others:

No matter how you find a book -- browsing at the store, or mentioned on a blog, or in a review -- most people notice and buy a book first because they've heard of the book or the author. Even when you aren't intentionally looking for familiar names, if you browse a shelf in a bookstore, you are naturally attracted to the the titles and names which look familiar.

And odds are, most of the time, the books you buy are by authors you've read before.

So the more familiar you are with an author or book, the more likely you are to recognize it, pick it up or click on it, and check out the cover, blurb and maybe sample, and then buy it. Any of those other things may be the trigger which actually prompts you to buy, but familiarity is what gets you to that point.

Advertisers have an old rule of thumb that a consumer has to be exposed to a product seven times before it registers on their awareness. Note, I didn't say "before they buy," I said "before it registers awareness." It's only after that point that most of the rest of the sales factor kicks in -- an attractive cover or description or whatever.

So what advertisers are trying to do is not really sell you on the product, but just make it familiar to you. And 90 percent of marketing is just finding ways to get the product where people will see it.

Of course, this is one of the reasons why word of mouth is so much more important than any other kind of advertising. It isn't just your friend's opinion. It's the fact that you hang out with your friends, so you will be more likely to come in contact with things your friend owns. If a friend has a book in his living room -- on a shelf or side table, you're going to see it more than once. And you may well hear about it more than once.

And they do say that even if you ask your friend about it, and he shrugs and says "it was okay" -- you are still more likely to remember the book and check it out because you had a personal interaction regarding the book. (Not because that interaction impressed you, or even that you remember the interaction consciously. It's just that your brain will hold on to bits of that interaction because it was personal.)

There are some people who literally never browse for new books by authors they haven't heard of.

I've talked to a number of such people, and some are adamant, they NEVER read reviews or look at best seller lists. Some even claim they never talk about books with their friends.... and yet they are avid readers and don't have trouble finding books.

How does this happen?

Because, even though they don't read reviews, they do see headlines of reviews in the paper or on blogs. Even if they never talk about books with their friends, they see the book on the friend's coffee table. They read articles about authors, or interviews. They meet authors online in forums. They read articles written by authors about the future of publishing. They see a book mentioned in someone's sig. They see an ad. They see it in the "also bought" list on other books on Amazon.

None of those things have ever convinced this reader to buy a book. But all of them together make a book feel like a known quantity. And once it's a known quantity, then the reader is open to checking it out.


I once wrote a post on this blog about Inspector Slack, the policeman in some Miss Marple stories. Once a month or so, someone hits my blog from a Google search on Inspector Slack. Now, remember that Slack is not a major character, so odds are these people are not looking for a book to read. Furthermore, Slack is pretty boring in the books, and so odds are that people searching on that name are more likely to share a certain taste with me: that is, they really like the way David Horovitch portrayed the character in the earlier BBC series.

So Google brings people to my blog who share my tastes. These people are not looking for my books, and are not likely to just buy my books. But they will have seen my covers, and maybe my name. Some will stick around and become fans of my blog, and eventually I will be a "familiar" name which they may buy my books.

But most will just read that one post, and maybe vaguely remember my book covers and maybe a title or name. If they see it again, it will look a little familiar.

The fact that Google brought a potential fan to my site is not where the real juice (power) is. The real juice is in those connections I told you about last week. Because those same people will come across my name or my cover or something I wrote, or a comment I made on some other blog -- so they will hear of me again, due to other searches that have nothing to do with me or my books.

And more importantly, this interconnectedness applies to people who are fans of that early BBC version of Miss Marple, who never ever searched for anything on my blog. But they searched on something else which brought them to a blog which is connected to mine because of a common interest.

In the real world, such connections fade. Newspapers get thrown away and recycled and line bird cages. Signs get replaced and repainted. You have to keep marketing and marketing to build up that kind of awareness

Here's the thing that's different about the world of Search Engines: Google saves everything. It's all there forever. Even if it's deleted, it's in an archive somewhere. And once the data is in, and Google has identified a customer as someone who is interested in old fashioned mystery, and Google has identified me as being legitimately associated with old fashioned mystery, Google will start putting me into that person's line of sight more often.

Remember, nobody is unknown to Google.

The problem with this process (if you could call it a problem) is that it's very slow. Google is looking for legitimacy.

For instance, when a site first appears on the internet, that page may be available for a day or two, and then disappear from search for three to six months. Why? Because Google puts new sites into the "sandbox" to play with the other babies until a site is mature. It's checking you out, seeing if you play well with others, if you will continue to create consistent content. Bad behavior can put you in the sandbox for good, but usually it's just a matter of time before Google lets you out into the real world.

Google sees time as a legitimizing factor. The longer you're around, the more Google likes you.

The other factor Google and other search engines look for is quality "content" -- in a relatively high volume. These two factors kind of fight each other, because you can spread a lot of low quality content quickly. That's one way to get high volume. Run around to every blog in the universe an comment with a little "Nice post, visit my website."

If you do that, I can guarantee that Google will dock points not only from your site, but also from the site you posted on. A few comments like that will be ignored, but generally, forcing the quantity like that will get you back in the sandbox. It's worse than a waste of time.

However, quality content (which Google seeks partly as natural content -- real conversation, useful postings) takes time. And so just doing it slow and steady over a very long period of time gets you all kinds of leverage from Google and other search engines.

So, you're just better off getting on with your life. Sure comment on blogs, but do it naturally. Write your own blog, naturally. Take the time to build your body of work, and your online presence. Yes, you need to create opportunities for people to find you, but it will happen if you just keep living.

That's what Google, and Amazon, both measure and like... and reward.

Phew! That's enough about search engine and such. I'm ready for adventure.

Tomorrow, we have an interview with mystery writer Elizabeth Spann Craig, who will tell us about a character she wrote under the pen name Riley Adams. Then on to the last update before the Clarion Write-A-Thon begins!

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Clarion Workshop Deserves Support

It was twenty-nine years ago this week that I had my life changed forever.

That summer, I attended the Clarion Workshop in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. The teachers were Algis Budrys, Marta Randall, Samuel R. Delany, Orson Scott Card, Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight. Among my fellow students were Dean Wesley Smith and Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and many others. Many were already published.

In 1982 the workshop met here in Michigan, at Michigan State University. And as now, it went for six weeks -- twenty apprentice writers shut up on a single floor of Owen Graduate Hall. It was kind of a pressure cooker, kind of a boot camp, kind of an initiation. Six weeks, 24-7, of writing, publishing and squirt gun fights. (And a pause to howl at the lunar eclipse.)

I was a small town girl, always a story-dreamer. I had spent the first two years of college in film school, mostly animating things by myself in a dark closet, before I realized that I was not social enough for a career as a movie director, nor bold enough to move to Hollywood and learn enough to even know if I were suited for any other career in movies.

But I did know how to sit in a dark closet and make stuff up. And even though I didn't know what a movie script should look like, or how it should read, or who to show it to if I should ever finish one, I DID know what fiction read like and looked like and how it was constructed, and I even, somehow, knew how you submitted it. At least generally. You stay home, type the story, and send it to a publisher. I knew that much. And that was something I could do.

And I had this crazy idea that I could make a little income writing that science fiction stuff. I did not read science fiction, mind you, other than some classics I read in school. It never ever occurred to me that you might want to read something before you wrote it, or that there might be some expertise involved. I read almost exclusively Golden Age mystery, P.G. Wodehouse, and swashbuckling adventure of the same era, with some high lit thrown in (including some "classic" sf shorts). Nothing modern, except for Donald Westlake, and some Harlan Ellison and other literature for class. For everything else I was a watcher. (I started as a film major, remember.)

And by luck I didn't watch Star Trek. I watched The Twilight Zone. So it just happened by magic that I had an idea of what constituted a modern speculative fiction story. And I wrote one - the third story I finished once I had decided I was going to be a writer and not a movie maker. And I submitted it to Clarion, along with the application which described my obsessive writing habits.

So thanks to Rod Serling, I got in to Clarion WAY before I was ready for it.

For all I know, I might be the reason they changed the requirement to TWO stories with the application.

You can imagine what a mind-blowing experience it was. Although most people write a lot while at a workshop, I didn't write much at all. I was too busy absorbing information. (Like, you know, that you should read a genre if you're going to write it.) I learned about the submission process, and about contracts and negotiating, and networking.

And I learned the most valuable lesson of all -- how three different respected professionals could have VERY different reactions to your work, and how three more pros and 19 students could also all have different views.

Which might be confusing to some. I know some people who have come out of Clarion bitter that "The Answer" (as they learned it) did not apply to what they wanted to do. I thought they missed the point: that there is no such thing as "The Answer." But maybe they missed it because the intensity of Clarion makes the whole place seem authoritative. If you're looking for authority, you will find it.

And for many that's okay too -- having some "authority" makes them feel comfortable in moving forward. You can always grow out of it.

The thing that makes Clarion a life changing experience, though, is that it forces you beyond what you think you know. Sure, you learn facts, and you gain skills, but what you really learn is exactly how freaking much you don't know. You learn that in spades.

And that changes your life, because once you're aware of that whole world out there -- not just mysteries that nobody really understands, but a knowable world -- everything looks different, forever and ever. It's like learning to draw and suddenly, when you look at a tree, it isn't just a tree like other trees. You see the line, the light, the color, unique it's individuality as a tree, but but also unique time -- in that moment of sunlight and breeze.

You know how small you and your experience in the universe is, but you also have a glimpse of just how big infinity is. You know, suddenly, how very far you can go, and how very much you can do.

I want others to have that experience and opportunity. Clarion is expensive. You need to cover tuition, room and board for six weeks. You need to put your life on hold. My family and I managed to swing those costs, but frankly, if the workshop had been out of town, I would not have been able to get the travel money too.

Clarion isn't a rich kid's play room, though. You get in based on merit. The Clarion Foundation raises money to offset the cost, in hopes that those who are accepted can actually attend, regardless of their financial condition.

I'm participating in the Clarion Write-A-Thon partly for selfish reasons: I need incentive to write a lot this summer. But I also feel that it's important to try to raise funds too. The Clarion Foundation may not be the kind of charity which saves lives, but it does change them.

Please consider a donation or pledge. I haven't set a money goal. I have no idea what goal I should set. I don't know your inclinations or budget or what other demands there are on your money. I can only ask those I know to please help give others the experience I had.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Creating A Cover: Using Layers to Plan The Attack

This is a series of posts -- every Tuesday -- about the creative process in making a book cover. (The series begins here.)

So yesterday I explained a little about what Photoshop layers are, and how they work. You basically use them to keep parts of the picture separate so you can move them around and make them bigger and smaller and change things about them without affecting the rest of the image.

In that post I played with a photo, but layers are especially useful when you are drawing pictures.

I think the best example would be if you look at the concept drawing here of my Misplaced Hero cover: There's a scene in the middle, and a nice neat, square frame around the outside. When I paint that image in the middle, I want to use free brush strokes. I want to paint beyond the edges of that frame. So if the frame is on another layer, it's like it's a real frame in real life -- a separate piece. The frame is safe from paint, and the paint is safe from the frame if I want to change sizes.

So now I want to transform this concept sketch into a Photoshop file, the first step is to really look at it, and see how the pieces interact, and then plan out how I will set up my layers. I would do this if I were using clip art too.

And just as there are "pantsers" and "plotters" at writing, some people plan layers like I do, and others just add layers as they work. However, I find thinking about it first really helps make the process go smoother. There's nothing worse than painting two things on the same layer and then later realizing you wanted to separate them. It isn't just a matter of copy and paste -- as I showed you in yesterday's post, it will leave a hole, and there are ragged edges. It's a mess.

First I scan or take a photo of my original pencil sketch, and I make that the background layer of the image.

I'll want to keep that layer locked most of the time, so that I don't accidentally mess it up. In this case, I had to unlock it, because there is too much space at the bottom, and not enough at the top for the title. So I'll unlock it, position it the way I want it, then re-lock it.

(Photoshop users, this is a good thing to do anyway -- because Photoshop has a weird feature that it lets you draw on the the locked background layer. You can't move it, but you can draw on it! However if you unlock it, it stops being a background layer. You can then re-lock it, it actually LOCKS the layer so you can't draw on it. Weird but true.)

At this point you'll also want to decide the size of your image. With an ebook, it doesn't matter so much. It just needs to be approximate book proportion and a high enough resolution that Amazon and Smashwords will accept it. If I know for sure it will NEVER be a paper book, I usually make it 600 pixels wide, by 900 pixels tall. If you're going to do a paper book, you really have to know your exact dimension, plus bleed, and resolution and do the math. I'm not going to do that here, but I'll explain it later if anybody wants me to.

Let's look at the parts of this design, shall we? Which things are in front and which are in back? Which belong together, and which are better separated? NOTE: We're going to ignore the fonts for now -- because fonts have separate layers anyway. (We'll talk about those next week.) So look at the sketch:

The top layer is the frame... or wait, is it the roof of the castle? Uh, oh, my design calls for something tricky here. The castle walls are behind the frame, but the roof "breaks out" of the frame, and appears in front. ( I have to admit, I have a weakness for breakouts. They're a spiffy cool design thing -- and part of the point is that the breakout feels dynamic. It's like it's alive.)

There are several ways to deal with this, but they can all be done later, so I'm going to worry about those in a later post. For right now, we're going to pretend there isn't a break out. The frame is on top, the castle is in the background. I created the layer and sketched it out in orange so you could see it. (Then I turned it off so it wouldn't be in the way.)

What's next? The water. Alex is standing in water -- because he rises out of water into the world of Awarshawa, so a few of the waves appear in front of him. That's on its own layer so I can paint outside the lines all I want, and also play with position and color. I may want Alex in deeper or not so deep. The water is in blue in the second panel.

Then comes the solitary figure of Alex, as an alienated modern college student. He's in green because he's an MSU student. (Go Green!)

Then comes the larger Alex - The Hero Swashbuckler In His Soul. The Swashbuckler is in lavender because he's manly enough to deal with it.

Now, with these two figures, I'm going to have a challenge drawing them. They're going to be silhouettes, and they're not going to be real detailed, and they're going to have to be clear what they are even at a small size. I mean, look at my pencil sketch: it's not fully clear whether that line is the corner of the castle or the Swashbuckler's sword.

So layers are really going to help me out there. I can reposition either of them, resize them, and even re-draw one without disturbing the other. I can change the Swashbuckler from a sword-up-and-ready position to a sassy sword-down position if it works better. All without disturbing the rest of the image.

Up to this point it's obvious that all these elements should be on separate layers.

But the background layer is trickier. It could be just a painting of a castle -- one layer. But let's pause to think about how you paint a scene like that: A real painter would first paint in that texture and color in large rough brush strokes, and then paint in the details on top of that, like the windows and the line of the edges later.

However, since those details are all on top of the background texture and color, I could put them on a separate layer. And then I could change my mind after I saw all the details in place. I could repaint the background, change it from warm limestone to cold granite, or I could make it awash in moonlight or even a bright sunny day. And the details would not be disturbed. I could preserve the details like the windows and the lines, and just change the background. Same with if my hand slipped when I was drawing the line and I made a mistake. If they were on the same layer, I'd have to erase part of the background when I erased the mistake.

So I created two layers for my castle. And I'm thinking I want another for the sky. The sky seems so simple, but that just gives me one more reason to put it on a layer by itself. I can just fill the whole layer with dark blue. I can brighten or darken it separately from the castle, and move the castle around more easily. I can put little men on the castle walls and then change my mind and erase them. (I can put a giant cat back there...) I can add clouds or take them away more easily.

So in the end I'll have nine layers, from the top down:

1. Fonts
2. Frame
3. Water
4. Small Alex
5. Swashbuckler
6. Castle details
7. Castle color
8. Sky
9. My original sketch

Is that a lot of work? No, actually it isn't.

It's a lot of thinking. It saves work. Your best bet is to first be creative and sketch ideas. But once that's done, you should pause for a moment and be logical and plan what you're doing. Then you can start being creative again.

Now, as I said, next time, I will talk about fonts. Because this is a book cover, and I will want to be sure my Title and Author Name are highly visible even at the thumbnail size. I may have to adjust a few things if they aren't.

See you in the funny papers!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Illustration: Intro to Photoshop Layers

Tuesday's post will be about how I use layers to break down and plan out a cover design. (That series starts here.)

But since I get a lot of questions about how layers work, I though I'd give you a brief introduction to the concept. (Especially since many writers doing their own covers could use a little more information about them.)

I did this in Photoshop, but many other graphics applications also have layer capabilities. If you see something you want to do here, you may want to look up tutorials online for your favorite software. Some of you may want to get a copy of Photoshop Elements -- which is a pared down version of Photoshop and cheaper. However, I don't know which features are missing, so I don't guarantee you can do everything I talk about in Elements.

First a little theory: What are layers?

Layers are a way of separating parts of the picture so you can work on them separately. In Photoshop, it's like you've got parts of the picture on clear plastic sheets, all piled on top of each other. You can change the order of the sheets to put some items in front or behind the others, or move each part around, independently of the others.

It works a little like old time cel animation. And since I was an animator during my first couple of years of college, layer have always made complete sense to me. (Here is a YouTube video about the history of cel animation.)

When you open a Photoshop document, it starts out with one layer. It's like a piece of paper. It might have a photograph on it, or you might draw things on it and erase things from it. But just like when you are drawing on paper, when you draw something over the top of something else, you basically destroyed the thing under it.

The Example of Max and Rushmore

My cat Max is very jealous of my trip down east last week, and he wants his own travel pictures to show off. He wants a picture of himself visiting Mount Rushmore.

Here is Mount Rushmore, and here is Max.

I cut Max out of the background of his own picture and plopped him down in the Mount Rushmore picture. If I only had one layer to work with, then I would position his picture just right, but once I actually put the cat down on the mountain, that position becomes permanent. His picture replaces what's behind it.

So if Max decided he didn't like the way his ears seemed to poke into the presidents' eyes, I'd have to cut his picture out to move it. And that would leave a hole. As you see below.

To avoid that problem, I put his picture on a different layer in the image. Now where ever I move him, the there is no hole in Mount Rushmore.

Ah, but Max has decided that if presidents can be colossal, so can cats. He wants to be as big as the presidents and to tower over them. Since I have him on a separate layer, I can easily use the "Transform" command to make him bigger. But if he wants to be behind Mount Rushmore, towering over it, I've got another problem. His layer is either in front of, or behind, the Rushmore layer. If he's behind it, the sky will cover him up.

I could fake it by leaving him in front, and erase part of him so that the mountain shows. Except that, once again, if I wanted to move him a little, there would be a hole in the cat, and it would show.

The solution here is to add another layer -- this time I'll cut the sky and the mountain apart, and put them each on separate layers. Giant Max goes between the sky and the mountain. Perfect!

But wait, there's more!

Max has decided he wants it to look like he and Abe Lincoln are buds. And what is a better sign of affection than draping your paw over somebody's face? Which, of course, would be in front of the mountain layer. Which is easy enough -- I just put the paw on a separate layer in front.

Ah, but the only picture I have of his paw was taken at a different time, and it's kind of fuzzy and grayed out. It doesn't even look like it belongs to the same cat. I can adjust the color saturation and sharpness to match, though. And since it's on its own layer, I don't have to worry about messing up the rest of the picture while fiddling with it.... which, of course, is one more advantage of layers. You can adjust the brightness and contrast and such separately from the rest of the picture, as well as run fancy filters on them.

And that's just the most basic stuff you can do with layers. You can also do all sorts of special effects. For instance...

If you look at the books "Harsh Climate" and "The Adventure of Anna the Great," the last two book covers in my sidebar, you'll see two examples of a special kind of layer called a "blending layer." In both cases, the picture is black and white. Just above the picture is a separate layer filled with solid blue, on which I've set the blending options to "multiply" which blends the two layers in terms of color. I can change the color by simply filling that layer with a different color.

And that brings me to the greatest Stupid Layers Trick: one very cool thing you can do with layers is turn them off!

You can have layers with several different options, and just turn them off and on to look at what you want to. This is great when you're painting a picture and you want to work on just the background. You can just turn off the foreground, which blocks your view.

Another reason you might turn them on and off is when you want to try out different options. For instance, for the cover of Anna the Great, I actually have four or five "blending layers" in the original document, each with a different color. I can quick turn off blue and turn on red to see if I like that better.

It's also very useful when you are producing something with variations on the same image. Like, well, like this Max and Rushmore tutorial. All those images -- small Max, big Max, the paw, the sky, Rushmore itself, and the hole in Rushmore -- are on several layers in one single picture. To make the various images above, I just turned some on and some off for each example. Easy peasy.

There is a lot more you can do with layers, and I am unashamed to say that I myself barely scratch the surface of what you can do. For instance, I've never played with something called a layer mask. However, that is something I'll probably use on the Misplaced Hero cover, because the design has a special effect we call a "break out." That's where part of the background appears to "break out" and be in front of something in the foreground.

But I will talk more about that later when I get to that part of the design. For tomorrow, I'll just explain how I use layers to break down and plan out my design.

(BTW, for those who need a little more direct "how to" information -- here is a YouTube tutorial about the most basic layers concepts.)

Continue with the covers series with "Using Layers to Plan the Cover."

See you in the funny papers.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Preview of Next Week and Update

Still got the Sunday Story on hiatus, but given that I'm going to talk about using Photoshop's layers features in Tuesday's Cover post, I will give a little intro post on Monday about what layers are and how they work.

In the meantime, I have been officially accepted as a participant in the Clarion Dare. Here is my official Clarion Write-A-Thon Page. I'll be talking on Wednesday about what the Clarion Workshop is, and why you should support it if you can.

Monday: Illustration: Intro To Photoshop Layers
Tuesday: Creating a Cover: Using Layers to Plan Out the Design
Wednesday: The Clarion Workshop -- a Great Thing to Support
Thursday: How Readers Find Books? (a last post in the search engines series)
Friday: Interview: Elizabeth Spann Craig

And of course, the next Saturday Update and Preview will be the night before the Dare begins. Which means I only have a week to get my head in gear.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Character Friday: Nancy Lynn Jarvis

On TV, writers like Castle take their best characters from real life. In reality, most writers just take bits of reality and build something new and memorable out of it. But now and then, a real person will inspire you to write about them as is.....

Today, Nancy Lynn Jarvis is going to tell us about Dave Everett, a former cop and good friend to her amateur sleuth main character, and about the inspiration for him.

Camille: What made you create Dave?

Nancy: I write cozy style mysteries with a Realtor protagonist named Regan McHenry. She comes across the occasional body selling houses--she and her husband even bought a house with a partially mummified body in it--and she has friends and clients who sometimes find themselves in a mess. She’s a bit of a meddler, but it’s not reasonable to think she could stroll into the police station, sit down with a cop, and ask to be filled in on what’s happening in a murder investigation she finds interesting. Enter her best friend: Dave Everett.

His official title is Santa Cruz Police and Community Relations Ombudsman. He used to be a cop until he lost an eye in a shootout with a criminal. He was going to be forced into an early retirement but convinced the police department that, since Santa Cruz police and the community at large don’t always see eye to eye, they needed him to handle the media, public relations, overflow paperwork, and anything else that could be done from a desk.

He’s a meddler, too, or rather a slightly bored ex-cop who seems to have his fingers in many law enforcement pies and insinuates himself, at least verbally, into many investigations. Through him, Regan can get information she needs.

Camille: What makes him special to you?

Nancy: When I started writing, all my characters began as people I knew; I began outlining them using their real names. They quickly got renamed as they were developed and took on their own personalities…all except for Dave, my real one eyed former cop friend. He got a new last name and a new job, got blended with my twin cousins who were cops and the local police officer who does media interviews, but Dave is still the one I visualize as I write his character.

Although my real Dave says he doesn’t sound at all like Dave Everett, he does. He and I don’t tease one another the way Dave and Regan do, and I make up what I call his “Daveisms,” but Dave really could say them. Here’s an example: “I think you’re right about him being a bully, and bullies don’t usually make waves once they run into bigger, badder dogs…I wouldn’t lose sleep over tinfoil momma’s baby boy.” (You so could say something like that, Dave.)

I love writing him and coming up with phrases he would use. Dave has evolved; he’s not my friend any longer, but he really has become Regan’s best friend which makes him special to me.

Camille: Do you have more planned for Dave?

Nancy: Dave will always have a prominent place in Reagan McHenry real estate mysteries. In the book I’m just finishing writing, The Widow’s Walk League, I intended for him to have a smaller role, but he wouldn’t stand for it. Sometimes he talks to me as I write and demands more lines. He’s constantly frustrated by Regan’s foibles and it’s worth it to let him have his way because it’s fun for me to watch him get agitated.

The Regan McHenry Mystery Series, which features Dave Everett, has three books, currently available in paperback and Kindle editions: The Death Contingency, Backyard Bones, and Buying Murder.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How to Stop Worrying and Love the Algorithm - More About Search Engines.

So in last week's post I introduced that idea that the internet has completely changed the way we find information -- from a "push" system where publishers compete to get the attention of the reader, to a "pull" system, where the publisher just sits back and lets the reader pull what they want from the system.

I don't know that I was fully clear about that last part so I will repeat it:

In the new internet paradigm, the information provider (the "seller") sits still and doesn't worry about selling the product. The customer finds you.

The very idea of this brings on panic in many. BUT... BUT... BUT... HOW CAN THEY FIND ME IN THIS HUGE CROWD OF JUNK??!!?? I'm LOST! I'm buried alive! Help help help!

I will start by telling you a joke my father used to tell. I'm really not sure if it's a traditional French Canadian story or if he got it from one of the Quebecois comics he followed. (If so, my guess is Michel Tremblay -- my apologies to Mr. Tremblay if I'm stealing his work....)

There was this baby bird who fell out of his nest on a cold morning. A man walked by and saw him shivering there, literally dying of cold. There was a warm, steaming pile of horse manure nearby, so the guy picked up the bird and stuck him in the manure to keep him warm.

After a little bit, the bird revived, and stuck his head up out of the manure, and started cheeping loudly for food. A cat heard the sound, and snatched the bird up and ate it.

There are three lessons to be learned from this story:

1.) If someone dumps you into a pile of merde, it may be for your own good.
2.) If someone snatches you out of the merde it isn't always to your benefit.
3.) If you're up to your beak in merde for goodness sake, KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT.

Which is my way of saying, if you find yourself swimming in the cosmic amount of doo-doo out there on the internet (or on Amazon) you don't need to panic and start screaming.

Sit back and enjoy yourself, because Google and Amazon have your back.

Yes, there are things you can do to help Google and Amazon do the job of helping customers find you. Some of those things are even promotional -- but for the most part, it's just a matter of going about your routine in ways that their algorithms can track and measure. (And also, of course, producing quality work. Just remember that to Google, every comment or forum posting is considered your "work.")

I'm going to try to give you a simplified version of what happens behind the scenes. This doesn't really talk about the user experience or anything going on at the surface, so I'm sorry if it's not clear how this benefits you. You're going to have to get your mind around how it works before you can understand the rest.

I'll talk mainly about Google here, partly because Google is a little simpler in terms of output, and partly because it's actually more important than Amazon -- and they're interactive with each other. (But that aspect is for another post.)

How does Google decide what results to give to someone doing a search? How do they filter out the junk which is screaming for attention with keywords and all those marketing tricks? How do they lead the searcher to YOU?

First, they examine everything going on out there in the web. They have computers gathering data about which pages link to which other pages, and whether users who search for a particular word respond well to those pages; whether they stay and read and click around the site, or if they hit the back button and keep looking.

But the biggest thing is the links. Google ranks each page with a kind of status or power -- which we sometimes call "Google Juice." If Google judges a site to have a high status, then not only will that site come out higher in search, but if the site links to any other page, those other pages will gain points from being associated with that powerful site.

So... here's an example I gave a while ago to Dean Wesley Smith:

1.) Dean's blog has a lot of juice for a couple of reasons all by itself. It has been around for a while, he posts regularly, and he gets a lot of traffic. Google also measures the "quality" of his content, based on measures they mostly keep secret, but we know they involve things like how long his posts are; whether they have a natural pattern of word use, or are just packed with keywords; whether the posts are consistent in terms of subject matter; whether it's all original content. It will also be judges on things like the fact that his visitors engage in long, exciting discussions in the comments. There is no spam on the site or in the comments. Nothing is forced, or machine leveraged -- the site is active in things that real live genuine readers do.

Google likes real live genuine readers.

2.) Google also measures the number of sites linking to Dean's blog, what are called "backlinks." The backlinks to his blog are also of high quality. He announces some posts on Twitter and such, but he doesn't spam or go around commenting on other people's blogs with "Nice post, visit my site." The sites linking to his may be lower status sites like mine, or high powered sites like Joe Konrath's -- but they all have good Google rankings for genuine content. That is, I may not be a high powered blogger, but I'm clearly not a link farm, I score well on the "quality" measures.

Furthermore, both Konrath and I benefit from linking to Dean, and not having links to spam sites, and also because there are legit links to our blogs from his. And as the low person on the totem pole, I benefit the most.

3.) Dean, Konrath and I -- and a bunch of other bloggers who are similarly linked -- are all writers, and write a lot about books and publishing, and genre fiction. So because we are already interconnected AND we have the same sort of readers, Google gives us all extra points in search on words related to our common topics. (And sometimes extra points for readers with a history of looking for such topics.)

4.) This is the magic part -- because of all the above associations, anything related to any of us becomes slightly related to the others. So that means anything Dean mentions on his blog gets a slight association with my blog and Konrath's blogs even if we don't talk about it -- and vice versa. And that sometimes even includes connections which don't appear on the web at all -- connections from real life.

So imagine this: Dean's wife Kris writes many books under pseudonyms, and neither she nor Dean reveal every pseudonym they write under. Say neither of them have ever mentioned a particular book on their websites, but at a Clarion reunion he happened to mention the title of one of Kris' books to me. I didn't know it was written by Kris, but I looked it up, and ended up talking about it on my blog.

Result? Without any promotional effort on the part of any of us — especially not Kris — and without my mentioning her name either, her book just got more likely to come up in searches by people who like her writing. That book benefits a little bit from any credibility Dean has, I have, and Konrath has. (And ironically, some of the credibility that I give to that book comes to me because of my indirect association with her, via Dean.)

So in the end, her book becomes associated with her, indirectly, even though nobody knows she wrote it. And from now on, anything she does will, in some miniscule way, promote that book nobody knows she wrote.

There's a reason why it's called the world wide WEB. It's all interconnected, and Google uses it all.

And that's just a really tiny part of it all.

No amount of promotion or money can fake the power in the huge amount of data points Google has on offer. It’s all just genuine, normal activity of people who are interested in the content, not the status.

That’s what’s coming to the publishing world.

So what's an unknown writer to do?

First you recognize that you aren't completely unknown. Google knows who you are. That may be a little scary, but that's the world we live in. The connections you need -- tiny ones -- are already there. You've got to build on them. While promotional activity might get some immediate attention, remember that's not where the Google juice comes from. Google won't make much use of it to help people find you. The juice will come from natural interactions, and quality content, and persistence.

And persistence may be your best leverage -- just stick around long enough.

So, remember: don't start yelling because you feel lost in a pile of crap. Google and Amazon both know where you are, and they will look after you.

Just learn to stop worrying and love the algorithm.

I hope I haven't confused anyone. I hope to clarify things in future posts -- especially to show how this works on the customer's end. Please ask questions in the comments if you need something clarified.

Next week we'll talk about how readers find books these days.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Clarion Dare Goals, and Thoughts On Writing Priorities

(Note: because of the big drag on my time that fell in the middle of this Write-A-Thon, I'm giving myself some extra time to meet these goals -- 50 days. I'll be calling it done at midnight on the 14th of August.)

The Clarion Write-A-Thon is 42 days long. You have to apply to participate, and of course, it's a fund raising event. More about Clarion and the great work they do next Wednesday.

I would like to set an uber-ambitious goal, but I have a lot of editing to do in this same period of time, so I need to be reasonable. Therefore I'm going for 50k words total. Not only is it a good goal, but it's the default setting on the NaNoWriMo sidebar widget I use to track progress.

GOAL: More than 50,000 words (approx 1200 words a day) on the following projects:

  • Finish The Man Who Did Too Much as soon as possible and get it to alpha/beta readers.
  • Write some short mystery stories to submit to Janet Hutchings at EQMM, because she said she wanted to see more of my work.
  • I have a bunch of Mick and Casey Novellas and Novelettes which are more than half done... must FINISH the darned things, and publish them.
  • I need microfiction and flash stories for my blog's Sunday Story feature. (Note, this one may change, I'm thinking of posting chapters of The Misplaced Hero this fall, and using the story notes to continue the "blogging my progress" series about how I create it.)

Of course, I will continue to do my artwork -- but I can confine most of that to the work I'm doing for the Day Job, with some set aside time for the "Creating a Cover" series in my off-hours.

For the duration of the Dare (mid-August) I'll be reporting on progress of these dares on Saturdays and Wednesdays.

Some thoughts on long term goals:

I also want to mention my latest thinking in terms of my longer term goals. You could call these the goals behind the goals.

At the moment I have two conflicting priorities:

*Body of Work. I need to have multiple books in each of my genres and series. That's the foundation of a writing career. If someone discovers a book of mine, there should be other books for them to go to right away -- and in the same series or genre.

*Income streams. Aside from a Day Job, income can trickle in from interest on savings, dividends, odd jobs, and of course, you get income from books -- except for one thing. The books have to be published to become an income stream.

That's where the conflict comes in.

Priority One is all about larger projects which take a long time. It's also about quality and branding, and doign things right. These projects include things like planning out sequels several books in advance and getting them out there, and filling out the selection of each genre.

Priority Two, on the other hand, favors smaller projects which can get out there quickly. While overall success may depend on branding and consistency, the emphasis in any passive income plan is on diversity and volume, and doing things now.

These projects could involve things not related to fiction writing at all. It used to involve my SEO articles (may eHow rest in peace), and t-shirts at Printfection, and script analysis. Currently it involves short fiction and novellas -- and submitting them to commercial magazines, as well as self-publishing. It also includes some ideas I have for non-fiction. For instance, I used to run a blog called Reading Chinese Menus, and I am thinking of collecting the existing posts and offering them as a cheap little e-booklet. Maybe adding a little more material to flesh it out, but mostly just seeing if it flies. And if it does fly, I would have to consider reviving the blog. I could also do a collection of some of Daring Novelist posts.

Although there is a lot more on my plate than that, I really have to make major progress on these two goals in the next two years. So how do you balance the conflict?

I think you have to look at it like you're badly in debt. You have fifty credit cards, student loans, an underwater mortgage, and two sets of car payments, and you have to save for your kid's college, and your retirement and also get some serious dental work done. What do you do?

Now, the usual, logical way of doing this is to do the math and try to pay off the biggest debt with the highest interest first. However, Dave Ramsey, the personal finance guru, has a concept called the "Debt Snowball."

One of the big problems people have with debt is being overwhelmed. No matter how much they do, nothing ever seems to get better. They receive bill after bill. (Doesn't that sound like how it feels to have too much work on your plate as well?) His advice is to stop worrying about what is smartest in terms of the math. You've got to make progress. So the first thing you do is to go after the things you can get done quickly. If you only owe a small amount on your student loans, then it doesn't matter if that's your lowest interest loan. If you were to just pay the minimum on everything else, you could pay the sucker off now.

One down. Out of your hair. Put all that energy into paying off the next easiest one. Bam. Gone. Fewer bills to worry about. A sense of accomplishment. With each bill out of your hair, you have more money -- and more energy -- to deal with the bigger problems.

So for a writer with a lot of projects and ideas and work, the first thing is to create a kind of "writing snowball" to create your own momentum. Prioritize first on what you can get off your plate.

Sure, some of my smaller income stream projects fit that bill, but so do several of my partially done novels. The Man Who Did Too Much is probably three-quarters done if I go by word count. I have a fantasy novel, Moon Child: Ready Or Not, which just needs some editing. That one will take less time than the Chinese Menus booklet will.

So for summer, the goals of the Clarion Dare (plus the editing of Moon Child) are the first leg of this Snowball Plan. That's two novels off my plate, and a bunch of short fiction to submit to various magazines, or publish.

I may not get back on my goal to publish 12 works this year until fall (no, I haven't forgotten that goal) but I hope to make up the difference once summer is over.

The next set of low-hanging fruit may be some non-fiction. I'll probably be struggling to keep up with the blog again by the end of the dare, so I will probabably take a little time to write up a bunch of posts for fall. And I'll probably do the Chinese Menus thing, and maybe some collections from this blog.

I hope that by October, though, I'll be able to get back onto major projects.

Tomorrow, a little more about how search engines work, and Why You Should Stop Worrying and Love the Algorithm.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Creating a Cover: Gesture Drawings

I love working with art on the computer. The things you can do with color and transformations and editing and polishing and just plain playing around is magnificent. And the tools you can combine! You can use chalk and watercolor at the same time.

However, I can't sketch on a computer. Even with a Wacom tablet, I have proportion problems. For most people that issue goes away as they get used to the tablet, but I honestly think I have an image processing issue in my brain. Or it could just be a visual tracking problem. (I can't tell right from left to save my life, AND I can't watch 3-D movies for more than about a half hour at a time, because my right eye is not used to doing equal work with the left.) When you work with a digital tablet, you draw in one place while looking in another. The proportions change as you zoom in and out, and if you shift the tablet to tilt a tiny bit in one direction or other, your brain has to reprocess and readjust the direction you imagine the lines are going.

So while I can edit and polish and do all sorts of spiffy things on the computer, I can't sketch. There are too many constant adjustments for my poor silly brain to deal with. Sure I always improve with practice, which is one reason I will be spending the summer learning more about Corel Painter. (This is one thing I never mastered on paper anyway -- painting. I do pencil. I love pencil. But for painting, I'd rather use a computer because of that cool factor of being able to paint in all sorts of media at once.)

When it comes to drawing people, especially people for exciting adventure covers, there is one kind of sketching which is critical to getting started. And I finally realized that was the step which was missing when I was trying to work on the computer: it's called the gesture drawing. You do quick shape sketches which get the proportions right, and also give you that lively feel of movement.

You can't get that in tracing or replicating a photograph. A photograph is about the surface detail. A gesture drawing is about the bones and muscle.

Further below, you'll see the gesture drawings I did on the day I was driving past Staples and realized I needed something to sketch on -- and I stopped in and bought a bunch of 8 x 5 cards. That allowed me to sketch up elements to fill that square in the middle of my design. If you remember from last week's post, I decided on a design with a frame around and illustration -- here are the period covers I am using as inspiration for layout with my new cover sketch in the middle.

I had a lot of ideas that day, but knew the foundation of the image would be the figure of the lonely college student. It isn't a detailed image (and probably won't be) but it evokes a modern sense of alienation. Like a problem novel of the sixties.

From there, I had several ideas about what surrounds him. I could just have that figure on a gradation background like the Sandeman ad, but I also want to evoke the heroic aspect -- so should have shadowy adventures going on in the background? Alex standing in water, and before him a fortress, and a figure climbing the walls or fighting bad guys or...?

Once I started sketching the action poses, I realized that a ghostly image of a larger swashbuckling hero which stands around and above Alex just might be the right image.

Things which you sketch don't always translate well into a finished work. Details you imagine will stand out, end up disappearing when you polish it, etc. But I think I have a concept to work with.

This is a LOT of work for a 99 cent novelette. That's why I'm thinking of designing this as the "anthology" version. I will probably use it for each of the novelettes which make up the collection, but I might shrink the image and add a large "BOOK 1" to the cover or do something to differentiate each part. The other thing I could do is to get the human figures right, and then just change the setting in each one.

Update: since I first wrote this post, I have had the chance to do more sketching, and I also have acquired my own copy of Corel Painter. I have gotten a lot better at sketching on computer, and I'll talk more about this later when we get into the illustration phase. (See the samples at the bottom of the post.)

However, next week we're going to talk about Photoshop and one of the more technical aspects of breaking down my preliminary sketch so I can plan out how I want to create the various parts and put them together. It's kind of like outlining, only I use Photoshop "layers" to sort out the pieces. (But first a side note about Photoshop Layers for those who might want a little more orientation.)

See you in the funny papers.

Fun Web Tools for Writers

I nearly forgot I was going to post these links tonight -- I've been having fun writing my story for a flash fiction anthology based on the phrase "Pink Snowbunnies will Ski in Hell!" I decided to use George and Karla. (And I'm thinking this could be the opening for a future adventure for them....)

Also wrote another mini-microfiction story today for a contest on Janet Reid's blog. It's a quickie, 24-hour 100 word story contest, based on a list of words. Lots of fun. Go read the entries in the comments.

The web tools I'm going to tell you about are great for generating your own story contests like Janet's. Restrictions like a list of random words are great creativity stimulators. So check out these links to help you find some ideas:

The Random Word Generator and Random Phrase Generator give you a set of words to generate ideas from. This site has a couple of different versions of the word generator, one completely random, and the other lets you set some criteria -- like whether you're looking for a noun, or whether you want unusual words or very common ones. (Hint, the common ones give you the most creative bang for your buck.) This site also has a name generator, based on census data.

The Random Logline Generator is mostly silly, but I think it also gives good prompts for writing simple scenes and exercises. Maybe great for microfiction too.

For something a little more complicated, why not go for an I Ching reading for your characters? What should they do? Ask a question, have the I Ching Online toss the coins and give you a reading.

Finally here are a couple of widgets I use in my own sidebar: has a number of widgets and generators for random numbers and choices. I have their basic randomizer in my sidebar. I find it useful for things like if I have five options, or a dozen ideas, and I assign each option a number and have the randomizer choose.

The NaNoWriMo Progress Bar is useful for showing your progress when you're in a dare. You plug in what your goal is (it defaults to 50,000 words) and how much you've written and it creates a little progress bar which shows the percent of progress toward your goal. Unfortunately, you have to go to the site every time you update, because the site just generates some html that draws the image. The widget doesn't include the capability of just plugging in the data on your website.

Tomorrow, I'll post more in the "Creating a Cover" series, and then for Wednesday, I'll post about the Clarion Write-A-Thon and my goals for it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Update and Posting Schedule for the Week

I currently have way too much on my plate. But it's summer, and my Day Job hours are shorter, and better yet, my main project for the semester on the Day Job is to learn Corel Painter, which fits nicely with my illustration goals.

I threw the coins on this nifty I Ching site, and asked it what I should work on next. It came back to me with Wei Chi: Tasks Yet To Be Completed! Whoa! It told me that I should cross the river like a man, and not like a young fox which gets its tail wet - which the site interpreted to mean that I should finsh what I've started and take my time and not rush to do too much.

The problem is that I've already started too much. But it still gives me an idea of what to put aside. For instance, I just got a nice rejection from Janet Hutchings at Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, telling me that she likes my writing and wants to see more. At the moment, I don't have anything in the pipeline for her, so a part of me wants to drop everything and write a bunch of short mysteries.

Can't do that.

As a matter of fact, I have decided to skip the Story Sundays for the rest of June to help myself catch up. Then I'll probably do some excerpts from whatever I'm working on in the Dare for all of July, because....

From June 26 through August 6, the Dare Gets Serious!

This is the period of the Clarion fund-raising Write-A-Thon. I encourage you all to join in, as a sponsor or a writer (or both!) The money goes to pay scholarships for the Clarion participants. I'll talk more about this on Wednesday, when I go into my goals more fully.

Up until Wednesday, my goal is to get organized and set priorities.

This Week's Posting Schedule:

  • Sunday and Monday: skipping the story and notes. Instead I'll post some links to interesting stories or news from this week. Also some sites with intersting idea generation capabilities. And maybe pictures and some haiku. (Did I mention I used to write a lot of haiku?)
  • Tuesday: Creating a Cover: Gesture Drawings (Sketches)
  • Wednesday: The Clarion Write-A-Thon and my goals for summer.
  • Thursday: Another SEO article about how Google and Amazon do the heavy lifting for us on marketing.
  • Friday: Another interview about a secondary character. I need to contact the authors to figure out who.

By that time I should have things more under control. (One thing I'm going to do for the duration of the Clarion Dare, though, is reserve Wednesdays for a second weekly update so I can keep focused on the dare.)

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Character Friday: Chris Truscott

This week, Chris Truscott is going to tell us about Holly, a one-night stand to took a larger role than expected.

Camille: First, tell us a little about Holly.

Chris: In Stumbling Forward, Holly's a 23-year-old recent graduate of the University of Minnesota who's trying to break into liberal-progressive campaign politics. This is much to the chagrin of her wealthy and conservative parents in the suburbs, who would prefer to see her get married and start raising a family--like her two older sisters. A bit of a party girl, certainly, Holly's also intensely loyal to those around her and very good at the jobs she manages to land.

Camille: What made you create her?

Chris: Holly was created as barely a step above an "extra." She made what was supposed to be her first and only appearance in the very first scene of the first chapter in Stumbling Forward. She was simply a one-night stand the main character was trying to get rid of one morning. She didn’t even have a last name until I decided to bring her back toward the middle of the book—crossing paths again with the male lead.

Camille: What makes Holly special to you?

Chris: I like this character a lot because she was an accident—a complete and total fluke. (My female lead was also an accident, meant only to be a secondary character before she stole the show in the first few chapters.) Holly is a free-spirit in a political world that produces a lot of people who stick to convention. She's not afraid to be who she is, to have fun and to say what she thinks.

Camille: Do you have more planned for her?

Chris: Yes. Holly evolved from an “extra” at the beginning of Stumbling Forward to a minor character in the middle and a solid supporting character at the end. In the final four books of the series—including the recently published A Referendum on Conscience—Holly returns as a main character. (And she’s a devoted friend to the man from her initial scene and to his new love interest. She’s a supportive and grounding force in both of their lives.)

You can find Holly in two of Chris Truscott's books:

Stumbling Forward: As Election Day nears, Clarissa Rogers, a young idealist, is hit with the reality that winning may not be the best thing. Along the way, she captivates a womanizing political consultant, draws the attention of people who could change the world, and emerges as the one person who might actually be able to send an egotistical, opportunistic and unqualified candidate to Congress.

A Referendum on Conscience: A terrorist attack. A vote against a popular war. A re-election campaign. Rebecca McElroy is looking forward to retiring as she nears the end of her second term in the U.S. Senate. Then terrorists launch a devastating attack on Washington that drives the country into a bloody war and changes everything for the pacifist senator from Minnesota.