Do you judge a book by its cover?

HermitOfCarmel_foggy copyHermit of Carmel is done. Well, kind of. Truth is, I changed the ending a little just last week – after I swore that it was “ready to ship.” Really, it’s the hardest part of writing a novel: knowing when to stop. But, it’s my prerogative and one of the benefits of managing the publishing process yourself. I can do any damn thing I want. In the interim, I contracted the book cover design (front, back, spline) and interior layout/typesetting to a professional designer: Laura is based in Toronto and has been great to work with. Ours is a collaboration limited only by budget and imagination. She employs what I assume is a consistent process – to understand the book’s themes, characters, and audience demographic – before she prepares some draft ideas. Really, I hoped she might have read the book but, after consideration, agreed that it would be unreasonable to ask a designer to read every book he/she might work on. Laura also asked me to identify other book covers that I really appreciated, so she’d have an insight into my personal design sense. That was a ton of fun in itself. There’s some great cover art out there. It’s a creative genre unto itself.

Simplicity. That was my stated objective, in the context of design. The simple, underlying theme(s) of Hermit – love, loss, grief and golf – should, I felt, guide the design aesthetic. Laura came back with four initial designs, all of which proved interesting. One caught my attention immediately. After some agonizing, consultation with family, and some feedback to Laura, we made some design revisions and zeroed in on a final version.

For new writers who are self-publishing, or are collaborating with a design team at a publishing house, this can be both an enjoyable part of the process to get a book to market, and a welcome distraction from all the angst you’re likely experiencing with final copy editing, reviewing proofs, etc. And, if what they say is true – a cover really does sell a book – you could argue this might be the most important element of marketing fiction. Of course, design is subjective, and not everyone in your target audience will appreciate the cover art. No matter. I need to like it.

In a week or so, I anticipate we’ll get to final art – including front and back cover, with leading line, book description, an area to convey social media contacts, price and ISBN. Right now, we’re debating color and tone of the cover image. I’m including the draft version with a slight bluish tone, as an example.

Stay with me. Hermit will hit the streets by January. Too late for the coveted Christmas season, I’m afraid – but better late than never. Here’s hoping the cover is judged kindly, and the words inside live up to expectations.

“More Coffee, More Writing”?

20140714-french-press-waterLike many who have a passion for writing, the commitment to the craft snuck up on me gradually. I had always written, sure – even as a boy. I excelled at the essay format in high school and university. (I also created a comic strip, at age 13, too, but that’s for another post.) In my first post-university professional role, among other responsibilities, I wrote ad copy and press releases for a marketing/PR firm. During that time, I took creative writing classes – held in the evening. I wrote on paper back then. Seems like a life ago now. Somehow, crumpling a piece of paper in frustration, over the quality of the work, reflected the sense of drama a creative man ought to: more so than pressing the delete button on a computer keyboard, for certain. Development of my career(s), the demands of entrepreneurship, raising two kids, the overwhelming impact of marital dissolution, and a multitude of other interests, hobbies and passions, always seemed to interfere with getting stories from my head onto the keyboard. I exercised my writing skills by writing content for periodicals, corporate communications and social media, but those related to my professional activities in finance and investment. That genre of writing has never allowed me to fully exercise my creativity and permitted that undeniable sense of fulfillment that comes with it.

The fictional stories, or concepts behind them, wouldn’t stop. I know it sounds terribly cliché, but they haunted my sleep. They rattled around in my head like moths trapped inside an exterior light fixture, bumping up against my brain repeatedly – trying to get out. I needed a creative outlet.

Sleep came with difficulty. Good sleep was rare. I started waking increasingly early. Coffee, dark and black, became my close friend and companion on long Canadian winter mornings. So did the keyboard. Early mornings, a pot of coffee and banging (I still two-finger type) on the keys became routine. The words, pages and plot flowed. The coffee soothed and lubricated the output. One book took shape. One, two, three re-writes. An editor took over. More re-writing. Sleeping actually became easier, though I still remember one all-night editing session. I had imposed an arbitrary deadline on finalizing The Hermit of Carmel. I was determined to adhere to it. A large carafe of coffee got me through the night, a spectacular sunrise, and into mid-morning before I finally eased myself beneath the comforter and enjoyed the satisfaction of putting myself, and the first novel, to bed.

Novel #3 is in outline form and a foil bag of dark Sumatra roast sits quietly beside the french press – patiently awaiting a pour over. I can’t imagine a scenario in which writing and coffee were not synonymous. It fuels me. It inspires me. More coffee, more writing.

Story pacing – An essential element of good fiction writing

Pacing is a tool writers employ to influence the speed and rhythm in which a story unfolds. It’s as important to a story as plot, character development, language, spacing and punctuation. Think of pace as a tour guide at The Louvre. This guide has control over how tourists are introduced and then guided through the collections – walking (sometimes dragging) them briskly through, lingering far too long at the Mona Lisa (it’s overrated – trust me) or left largely alone, unguided, to leisurely stroll through the museum on their own. Pace is a critical component of effective fiction writing – to keep readers engaged and drawn into the story. Storytellers of all varieties use the tool – effectively, if they’re skilled. Novelists, screenwriters and even songwriters use pace to structure their narrative. Even a ghost story, told over a campfire, can be made more successful (assuming your goal is to scare the crap out of the kids assembled) by including pregnant pauses, followed by rapid delivery. Draw the kids in slowly and then hit them with the terrifying truth to send them screaming, to their tents, and deep into the sleeping bag, for the night. Ah, telling stories can be so satisfying.

Reading several blog posts related to story pace, by writers, editors and agents alike, convinced me to pay greater attention to pace, yet, left me confused. Like many aspects of writing, what constitutes good, is subjective. Some said (I’m paraphrasing and aggregating the thoughts of several bloggers) “grab them from the start and never let them off the wild ride”, and, “draw them in by maintaining a steady momentum and constant speed.”

I reviewed my latest manuscript draft (revision number 3, thank you) with a more critical eye. I had to acknowledged that it started slowly. And, I’d had some feedback by respected sources that confirmed so. I crafted an addition to the first chapter, and plunked it down at the very start. I was satisfied that the new scene added action, conflict and intrigue, right out of the gate. The draft now starts in the present and time-jumps to the past. The second scene, somehow, didn’t mesh with new addition. I needed some glue to connect and bind the two, and added yet another new addition, to start Chapter 1. The new section included preliminary introduction to the protagonist, a short scene cut, and better context for the (now) second scene.

I re-read the entire manuscript specifically to review and evaluate pace over the course of the weekend. I might have been rationalizing my own exercise, but after the revisions to Chapter 1, I was largely satisfied with the variety of pace I employed, to lead the reader through the entire story. A metaphor for pace popped into my head, as I ruminated on the subject, and provided a counter-point to those writers and editors who might suggest a consistent, fast pace and momentum. What’s more fun: a rollercoaster ride, or a flight from NY to Los Angeles, on a 777, cruising at a steady 550 MPH? Taking a reader on a ride that includes some slow sections, which provide opportunity for the reader to catch his/her breath and look around the amusement park, from a lofty vantage, and builds anticipation and excitement for what will come next, is the best way to ensure the reader is entertained.

The (digital) Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me! It seems incredulous that, given all the words I have put to paper, er… to keyboard, for twenty-five + years, I’m just now creating my own website. But don’t worry. Mine is one of only 644 million sites that internet users have to choose from, so I’m certain I’ll get lots of traffic. I’m told that, as a writer, I absolutely have to have a web presence. It may sound cynical, but it’s occurred to me that publishers are more concerned with a writer’s brand identity, their “platform”, and number of social media followers than his/her capability as a writer. No matter. I intend for this site to be a pure and simple outreach to people who like to read, are writers themselves (usually one in the same), and who might just like what I have to say. I’ll do my best to keep it fresh, relevant, and insightful. And, of course, I’d like to introduce you, the reader, to my novels. I happen to think they’re wildly entertaining, but I’m somewhat bias. At the end of the day, like any other creative artist, I want people to read and enjoy my work. Cheers!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton