Judging Your Book by Its Cover

Like it or not, most people will only give a cursory glance at your work. That’s because in a sea of choices, the average reader doesn’t have time to take an in depth look at every title. Even thorough shoppers, those who read product descriptions and reviews, are only given a paragraph as a preview and an average review score after they click. In other words, people rarely give a book more than a moment of consideration.

The human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text. That’s because there is no processing time for an image. Words, on the other hand, require us to remember and attach meaning. So not only are most readers not delving deeper than your cover they may not even read the title. Let that sink in. You are fighting for the attention, and the dollars, of the consumer- one who may not even be reading.

Not only should your cover be eye catching and stand out from the crowd, it also has to visually communicate what the book is about (or at the very least provoke interest.) That’s why genre expectations are so important. Crime thrillers need dark, foreboding covers because their subject matters are dark and foreboding. It would break expectations, and also look out of place, if a crime novel had bright and cheery imagery. (Make people terrified of a smiley face though and you’d have an award winning design.)

Even if you know what colors, fonts, and images to use for your work, you still have the trouble of designing and laying out the cover. Graphic designers spend years learning color and compositional theories and spend even more time refining their creative intuition. Few creatives have the capacity to both master writing and visual design (not to mention editing, marketing, and copywriting.) There is no shame in not designing your own cover, that’s why there are professionals, but there definitely is shame in having a bad cover.

Amazon’s Indie revolution made publishing accessible to everyone but that doesn’t mean that everyone has the knowledge to produce professional products. Consumers do not care where their book originated from, however, they do care that the book meets their pre-determined expectations- expectations that have been cultivated for decades by traditional publishers.

You can measure how much your perspective readers will care about your work, and also how much they would be willing to pay, by looking at how much you yourself have cared for the piece. If you do not care for your product, why should a consumer? Furthermore, it’s baffling to see writers creating products on the smallest budget possible- as if they are the only ones deserving of compensation. True, there are plenty of bargain products and services out there for writers, but those services tend to yield books only suitable for the bargain bin.

If you consider yourself a professional, and you want consumers to respect your work and properly compensate you for it, you must treat your work professionally. Editors, copywriters, layout artists, and marketers are all part of this important equation, however, the cover designer is by far the most important person you hire. Your cover should not be an afterthought or an afternoon on Canva, it should be the crowning glory of your book. It is the symbol of everything you worked for and is also your ambassador to the public.

So here’s the question to ask yourself: do you want your ambassador to be well dressed? Or are you going to take him to a five dollar tailor?

Protecting Your Work, a Quick Guide to Copyright

Everyone is afraid of having their work stolen.

The Internet is full of second hand advice on how to protect your writing from theft, however, most people don’t understand the simple process of securing your work. So here, in as few words as possible, is the low down on what you need to do.

First off let’s get rid of a suggestion that always comes up in writers circles: the “poor man’s copyright”. This technique involves sealing a copy of your draft in an envelope and snail mailing it to yourself. The postmark is supposed to be proof of when you created the material.

Besides not being submissable in court, this technique also misses the point of registering a copyright. You don’t register a copyright to claim ownership, you naturally own whatever you create, instead registering gives you the ability to sue for damages.

You read that right. If someone steals your work and you take them to court you can win with or without a copyright. But, you will not be entitled to any compensation unless the work was registered. Hopefully that put some fears to rest for writers out there.

So when do you register? The simple answer is not until it’s published. That’s another misconception writers encounter. True, you can pre-register work for an extra fee or even expedite registration for a very large fee, but typically the work cannot be registered until it has a publication date.

Now that all that’s cleared up, how do you actually register? Simple. Go to copyright.gov and click the box titled “register now” (it’s in the lower middle-left.) You will need to create a login and password.

Once inside, click on the “log in to eCo” button. You will then be greeted with a rather archaic looking system. What you want though is “file a new claim.”

The system will then guide you through the information you need to register your work. For a single author the process is very simple, however, it can get tricky if there were multiple contributors, hired illustrations, or other people involved that can claim ownership of part of the manuscript.

You will need to provide a digital file (PDF and Word are both accepted) at the end of the form along with a $35 processing fee. You can mail those both in, but this is the Internet, why slow things down!

If there are no issues, you should receive your copyright certificate in around seven weeks. Once you get it, store it somewhere safe and pray you never have to use it.

If something does arise, and this has happened to me a few times, a nice agent will contact you and go over what needs to change. In my case I tried to register a compendium of work, rather than each individual story. That’s a no no and will cause your claim to get rejected. If you have a pen name, as I do, you will also need to fill in on the form your real name as well as the pen name (you can claim just the pen name, but then in court you would have to prove that the pen name is you.)

Protecting your work is a lot easier than most writers imagine. With a little bit of money and some time you can give yourself peace of mind. Just be sure and finish your book first. 😉

Get Writing, Part 3: Characters

What is the one thing that defines your story more than any other element? Part 2 posed the question, here is the answer:

 


Characters

Characters define more elements of a story than anything else because characters are what a story is all about.

Think about it, our lives are filled with people. People that we work with, people that we fall in love with, people we hate, people we admire, people who we don’t care about. We communicate stories in order to transfer information and experiences about people.

Still don’t believe me? Let’s go back to that story about a baby who is in charge of a factory floor for the afternoon. The character of the baby will define the action of the entire story. If the baby is passive, stays in the crib the whole time, we don’t have a story. Also, if the baby is too needy, cries the moment he is left alone, we still won’t have a story. No, the only way that we would have a story is if that baby is adventurous, fun, and completely naïve about the ways of the world.

Characters define our story structure and conversely our characters are defined by our story structure. The two are inseparable, therefore when you get stuck developing your idea for a story you should shift your attention to the characters that you are telling the story about.

 

Who are Your Characters?

Spend some time exploring whom the people are that you are writing about. Go into as much detail as you can. This is research into your own imagination, though once you have a better understanding of your characters you will want to further investigate real world examples of them.

Are you writing a love story? Who are the lovers? A boy and a girl. Okay, how old are they? They are just finishing high school, actually one is older than the other. Interesting, who is older than the other? The boy. Okay, how much older? It seems like if the boy is older, getting out of high school, then the parents of the girl might have something to say about it. Actually, the families of both kids don’t approve of their relationship.

You see where I’m going with this.

The character’s circumstances determine the story while their characteristics define the type of story that is told. The more you know about your characters, their backgrounds, their histories, the more they will inform the narrative of your story.

This is how an idea fleshes out to become a novel.

 

Don’t Overthink

As with developing your idea from the original concept, there are no wrong answers. You must simply throw out your ideas and see which ones work and which ones are silly. All too often we censor ourselves before our ideas can even come out. This is where writer’s block comes from. All ideas are good, just some fit and others don’t, but you won’t know until you pull that idea out of the box.

When writing characters start with their backgrounds; go deep, go unique. Great jewels can be uncovered in this process. Surprising revelations emerge and will profoundly alter the course of your narrative. Maybe the hero committed some grave infraction when he was younger and is hiding it and dealing with it for the rest of his life. Maybe the villain saved a cat once and that bit of info will come in handy when you’re stuck trying to find a weakness to bring him down.

This groundwork, this character research, makes up the bulk of actual writing. Thorough exploration of your characters will not only add depth to your story, it will create your story. As with the rest of writing, you are simply putting black letters on a white page: nothing is set in stone, nothing is certain, nothing is sacred. You are here to create, to experiment, to fail, and to bring forth the best fruits of your labors.

 

What Do They Want

If you’re reading this, you want something. If I had to guess, you want information about writing. Maybe you want to be entertained. Only you know. However, no matter your answer, you want something. Characters are no different. Be it a main character or the most unnecessary waitress in a cut scene, every simulated person in your story has a set of wants and needs that they are acting on. When you define those needs, you get depth, and when you write to those needs you get compelling narratives.

Your story is essentially the tale of what your main character wants. Once she has gotten what she always wanted, the story is over, you’re done. If the story continues after this point you will lose all narrative momentum (if you’re working on something right now that for some reason stops working towards the end, this is the reason.) The character may not know what they want, clueless protagonists have been in vogue lately, but you have to know what they want and once you know that you can keep them from getting it.

Your villain, your antagonist, also has a want that drives them. This too defines the story, as what the antagonist does to get what they want throws the known world into chaos. (Greek definitions of Antagonist and Protagonist have the Antagonist creating a disruption in the world that the Protagonist then has to fix.)

An obstacle to any character’s want creates drama.

The bigger the challenge to the want, the higher the drama, the more frequently challenges are thrown at the want, the higher the tension of the piece. The best drama has the hero’s want in direct opposition to the villain’s want.

Knowing what your characters want will further inform your story. Once you start to understand more about the actors in your narrative, you will be able to tweak variables until you get a story that resonates and feels complete.

We’re still not done though.

 

Setting

When is a house a home? When characters call it their own.

Settings are characters too. They need to be researched and explored just like any other character except that settings naturally don’t have motivations. (Or do they? If your story is Man Vs. Nature, such as a survival story in a desert, your setting most defiantly wants your hero dead.)

You need to understand your setting because it too defines what happens in your story. Twilight (don’t groan) would not have been possible without the Washington State setting as the low light conditions of the United State’s only rainforest allowed Edward and his vampire brethren to hide out there in the first place. Had it not been for that, Edward would have never attended High School and Bella would have never met him.

A story set in Maine will have vastly different scene opportunities and default characters as a story set in Miami.

The character research that you have already done should also inform your setting. Is your main character a fish out of water? Where did he come from then and where did he end up? A Londoner will have different difficulties adapting to Texas then he would moving to Los Angeles. Also just calling him a Londoner implies a a sophistication and, since he migrated to the US, a certain amount of wealth.

 

Moving On

Don’t move on yet. If you’ve been following along then you probably have a few sheets worth of ideas and notes on those ideas. I also hope that you are getting a better understanding of what “pulling thread” means. Ideas are connected to other ideas and those ideas will tell you what you need to create and how you need to proceed.

Please don’t continue yet.

Spend as much time developing your characters as you can stand. Write and write about them until you are sick of it, then do it for a little while more. Detail as much as you can. Understand them. Get to know them. The better you understand your characters the more convincing your writing will be and the more alive it will feel. All too often writers skip this phase entirely, preferring to get to know their characters as they write the story. True, great surprises can happen this way, but for the majority of the time your characters will all sound the same, feel generic, and will generally act in the most cliché way.

So now that you know your characters inside and out, have their motivations and challenges in mind, and have hammered out exactly where they are and where they come from, you are ready for the next step. You just need a map to show you where you’re going.

That map has a name.

 

Get Writing, Part 2: Developing Your Idea

In Part 1 we discussed where ideas come from. Now let’s talk about what to do with your ideas once you have them.

Ideas can come in a trickle or they can arrive in a flood, but it’s what you do with them once you have them that really matters. Once you have selected an idea to pursue, you then need to grow it into a workable piece. Here are a few techniques to do just that:

 

Sound boarding

Have you ever asked a friend for advice, had a conversation, and then went away knowing exactly what to do without your friend ever really contributing anything? That’s sound boarding. In effect the technique is a one way conversation that allows you to ask questions about your idea and then receive answers from your own mind. Ideally you can have another person there to parrot back what you or talking about, or even add their own ideas, however you can use this technique alone. Simply ask yourself questions about your idea and then answer them on the fly. Imagine this was a conversation between me and a wall:

What’s your story about?

“A baby is in charge for a day.”

Cool, in charge of what?” (Whenever you ask yourself a question, don’t think, simply say the first thing that comes to mind. If it isn’t right, you can change it, just don’t get stuck.)
“Um, he’s the president of the United States.”
What?
“Okay, no, he’s the president of a company.”
How did that happen?
“Okay, maybe he’s not the president of the company, but he somehow ended up in his father’s office and there’s something there that allows him to control how the company operates.”
“Oh, neat! Like an intercom? I think people would know it was a baby though.”

“You’re right, it’s a computer, and the baby- no, toddler- thinks it’s a video game.”

It’s a silly example, but do you see how simple questions about your idea cause you to explore and then defend what you’re saying? Most people stop at the initial idea and never fight with it and the fight is where the interesting stuff develops. If I were to pitch this new  idea it would be:

“A toddler, left in his father’s office, causes havoc as he plays with a control pad as if it was a toy.”

It’s a better idea, but we can use another technique to develop it further.

 

Brainstorming

While soundboarding is great for auditory learners, Brainstorming is more suited for visual or tactile learners. Take a sheet of paper and write down your idea in the center of it. Circle that idea so it’s a bubble and then draw lines off of the bubble with questions (details) about the idea.

Circle those ideas and then add more lines with more questions and answers connected to the previous questions and answers. You’ll end up with a map of ideas that are all connected to one another. For instance, one of the lines coming off of the idea could be “characters.” We only know one for sure: the toddler, that would be its own separate bubble, but the text implies at least two more: the father and an employee.

Each of the character bubbles have their own lines that come off concerning their names, occupations, personalities, and eventually their character arcs. Brainstorming works because it shows how everything is interconnected. Ideas lead to questions, questions lead to answers, which then lead to more questions. Brainstorming maps can expand almost infinitely, so sometimes we need a little help keeping track of it all. Coggle is a pretty sweet brainstorming webapp that works with most browsers while Freemind is a free program that you can use without an internet connection. Both should handle whatever you throw at them.

I’d guess most people have run across this technique at one time or another, however, I’d also guess that most people stop when they run out of questions to ask themselves. So let’s talk about that.

 

Pulling Thread

Everything is interconnected. Good ideas, like seeds, contain all of the genetic material that’s needed to expand into a fully formed tree/story. Pulling the information out of the idea is a lot like pulling string out of a sweater. You simply have to find that loose thread to pull from. It’s an exercise in logic and can be really fun when you get into it. So let’s go back to the idea and find a loose thread:

“A toddler, left in his father’s office, causes havoc as he plays with a control pad as if it was a toy.”

Right off the bat, I zero in on the father. We need an explanation as to why the toddler was left alone in the office in the first place. What is the family like? Is he a single father? Maybe he had the child for the day and was so stressed out over work that he just had to bring the baby in with him. Logically, if a father has his own office but can’t afford daycare he would be middle to upper management. Powerful enough to oversee workers, but low scale enough to still feel the pressure of his work. This would make him middle class, so any kind of big disturbance at work could mean disaster for his family’s finances. The baby wouldn’t know this of course, he/she just wants to play.

All of the above were assumptions on my part and a few small decisions along the way. There are of course a multitude of other ways to explain the situation and that’s where the personal experiences of the writer comes in. There are no right or wrong answers, only lapses in logic, and you will only lose your audience if they don’t understand why things are happening (or don’t agree with why things are happening.)

Already we’re starting to see the story develop. However, there’s still a long way to go. We need to figure out what type of factory would be computer controlled and in doing so, figure out the kind of havoc that the baby actually produces. Again, using logic and personal choices, we can discover just what that is. Assembly lines have these types of controls and any little kink, a stop in one part of production, a change in output speed, can dramatically throw things off. So we now know that the toddler was taken to a factory, but what type of factory? What do they produce?

Now we have a question of Genre. Why? Because the type of factory he wrecks can have different levels of danger and outcomes. Wrecking a Q-tip factory will probably cause less death and mayhem then a car plant. So what type of story are we telling? I’m thinking comedy. So I’m reminded of some classic comedy…

 

Archetypes and Similar Stories

Everything has been done before. New writers and armchair authors often site this cynically. While it’s true that there are essentially eight stories that we keep telling over and over again, within their framework is room for endless variations and improvisation. It’s not what you tell that’s important, it’s how you tell it.

There is nothing wrong with looking at what has been done, and done successfully, and taking instruction and inspiration from them. Just be sure and add your own creativity to the mix. You are, after all, creating a new work of art.

Two famous pieces come to mind when I think of a factory and havoc. I Love Lucy’s famous conveyor belt scene and “Tummy Trouble” the short that preceded “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and setup the rest of the movie. The Lucy skit can provide us with an example of how to make the mayhem in the factory funny (things pile up until the workers are forced to do insane things to compensate) while the short from Roger Rabbit actually gives a glimpse of a working structure for our piece.

This is incredibly valuable. Again, we’re not ripping anything off. We’re simply seeing what has worked before, stripping away the flesh, and using the structural framework to develop our own story.

Right off the bat we have a setup: Roger is left with the baby. As soon as the mother leaves we have a problem: the baby swallows his pacifier and roger rushes off to the hospital to help. From there the problems mount as the mistakes of the baby are transferred to Roger. The baby pursues its own desires (getting a bottle) and causes more trouble that Roger then has to suffer for. We don’t get a resolution until Roger and the baby are in the same place and safe.

The two are in conflict, even though they don’t hate each other. That’s the structure of the cartoon and that’s what we can use for our own story. Our toddler will cause havoc and the father will suffer for it until the time that the two are together and at rest again. Our story will not take place in a hospital, and I doubt if we will torture the father as much as Roger got tortured, but the archetype, the idea of a frantic father and an innocent babe, will remain intact between the two pieces.

Rejecting Ideas

Not all ideas are good. That’s a given. That being said, it’s strange how defensive writers can get over their ideas. If you find that you have to explain your idea after you’ve pitched it, you need to do more development of the idea to make it clearer. If you find yourself actually defending it, fighting with people over your idea, you may want to consider discarding it entirely.

Ideas need to be clear, concise, and expandable. This isn’t just so the query letter to the literary agent sparkles and grabs, it’s because good stories come out of good ideas. One, two, five years, maybe even a decade of your life can be spent realizing a work, so make sure that your idea is worth the amount of time it will take to bring it to life.

Everyone has ideas. Few people have finished books.

Don’t be afraid to discard what isn’t working and start over from scratch. This is the stage you want to do that. Blank pages are pennies. New Word documents are two clicks away.

Make sure you love what you’re going to create.

Unexpected Developments

I didn’t start writing this blog post with the intention of ending it with a story about a toddler in a factory. I simply knew that something would come out of me when I asked. That something isn’t always good, logical, or original, but it was there. When you start pulling thread and asking questions of yourself don’t go in with any expectations. Embrace unexpected developments. The best material comes from places you never even knew existed.

So now we have a semi-developed idea. Not perfect, but much further along than what we started with. What’s the next step? What single factor contributes the most to the development of stories?

Find out in Part 3

 

 

Get Writing, Part 1: The Idea

Solve a Problem

Some people look at books as a tool to solve a problem. If that’s your view, then your idea should come from trying to solve an issue. Take bullying for example. If you want to solve bullying for a child or their parents, first do some research about why bullying happens. Talk to parents. Brainstorm about your own experiences. Read other books on the subject. Research will help you discover the “hooks” of the story and the narrative threads that you can later pull to create your work.

 

Tell a Story That Has to be Told

While some people look at stories as a tool to solve a problem, others look at them as ways to transfer personal meaning. They have a story or an idea that has to be told, no, it needs to be told. Stories that need to be told come from our own personal desires to express the meaning behind the story. Stories of dealing with the loss of love can come from our own heartache. These stories are often times a form of therapy for the author and as such become very personal through the course of writing (and can lead to a lot of pain if criticized improperly.) Personal stories require personal research. You need to explore where the idea came from, how those events effected you, and what you want to tell the world you learned from going through it. Remember that a lot of what you may have to say has already been said, and that’s okay, we often times don’t write to break new ground, we write to let others know that they’re not alone.

 

Follow a Trend

Some people write for money (shocking, I know.) If this is your reason for writing, and I don’t judge you for this in a capitalistic society, you’re in for a difficult ride. Right now Disney’s Frozen is still tearing up whatever charts its content happens to fall on, so if you were to word-map popular phrases “Sister” and “Princess” would be at the top of the list. So it would be safe to assume that writing a book called “Sister Princess” would get you to the top of the sales charts easily. Well, not exactly. The danger of following trends is that they are trends because everyone else is also chasing them. If you are determined to write for the market, instead go searching for books and categories that don’t have as much competition. In other words, look for books that people want but don’t have.

 

Observe Reality

Some people get their ideas from observing the world around them. These ideas can be great but often times need elaboration to make them satisfying. If something interests you, say a person you see grabbing french fries out of the bin at a food court, explore why you were interested in them in the first place. What would make someone grab food out of a trash can? Were they poor? No, they were too well dressed for that. We’re they cheap? The woman who looked like his wife seemed agitated, so maybe. What must their home look like? Was he just forgetful? Where else would this behavior come from? What if he went to church? Oh! What if he put twenty in the collection plate at church but only meant to put ten, so he went to the other end of the row and took out money from the collection plate? Now we’re getting somewhere!

Reality leads to characters and characters lead to stories. Observe them and ideas will come.

 

That Nagging Feeling

I find that my best ideas are the ones that I write down and then forget about. The good ones seem to bubble back up and bother me until I get fed up and write them away. If you are flooded with ideas, and what a blessing that is, put them in a notebook and let them rest for a while. Come back to them later and find out which ones are happy to see you again. Those will be your best ideas.

These four examples are just a tiny selection of the endless ways ideas can come to you. What’s important is to capture those ideas when you have them. Once captured, think of them as seeds that need to germinate. Seeds that you care for until the plant grows.

 

Continue to Part 2