Art hard

A long, long time ago I wrote a piece about how authors were no longer simply required to write: how we had to be artists & designers, marketing gurus, social media specialists and wotnot. What I didn’t really mention was how much fun this could be. For the last week I’ve set my editing aside and – inspired by the collapse of my somewhat elderly hard-drive – colonised my wife’s laptop and turned my attention to cover-art.

I’ve never missed as many buses as I did on my week’s sojourn, never lost time so completely. Learning new skills is always great. I just never expected to enjoy playing with Photoshop as much as I do.

Greyscale

The prep-work for the cover. It took bloody hours to get this far, mostly because of incompetence and uncertainty. A better impression of how the final image will look can be found here

I’ve never been as artist. I’ve always wanted to be; I’ve played with photography (GCSE grade A, I’ll have you know) and I did go through a phase of creating pastel abstractions in my early twenties. But I can’t draw. I’ve bitterly envied those that can; those amongst you who can simply pick up a pen and show me the inside of your mind. Just like I envy the guitarists. Damn communicators, making it look so easy. Everything I do – have ever done – is the result of bitter struggle, wringing myself out and trying, trying, retrying just to express myself.

I’m trying to get the cover-art right. My methods are the same as those I use to write. The ideas are nebulous. Trial and error; constant deletions and reworkings, shaping my mind as much as I do the image. Using three simple tools because I don’t know how to use the slightly more complicated (but infinitely quicker) fourth. Stumbling, misunderstanding, limping and cursing. But always moving forwards. Making my work a tiny bit better everyday.

It helps that I’ve found tools to design the basic outlines and that the overall image is towards the abstract. That means I’m trusting my intuition, heart and experience as much as my conscious mind – and, given that my conscious mind is an idiot, that means I can sense the image coming together. It’s a wonderful feeling, like learning a new means of – yes – communicating. A book-cover is a capsule encompassing everything the story is. The aim is to set mood, to tell the prospective reader just what the reading experience will be like at a glance.

Of course, this not only covers the image but the text: font, scale, hardness or softness: the mind draws inferences from a fraction of a second’s glance, and can judge from a tiny thumbnail whether the work will be right for them. The human mind is amazing, and anyone who sets out to influence it has their work cut out.

But right now I’m lost in the sheer joy of creation. I hope, deeply hope, that I find the other aspects of self-publishing as much fun as this. Or at least I hope I can learn as much from it. It’s certainly possible to view the business-side of writing as a distraction from real creation, but – right now – I’m choosing to view it as a tremendous opportunity. Not to sell books – that’d be a very nice bonus – but to learn. To grow. To build on my skills and possibly even to find new things to write about.

The road to Good

Image

The first step towards doing something well is to do it badly.

I could be talking about more or less anything. The first draft; the rough demo, or sketch; hell, this blog usually requires a very erratic (and badly grammaticised) bash-through before I’ve worked out precisely what I want to say and how I want to say it.

You sit in front of the computer and you have an idea. You think it’s going to be easy. You struggle to get the words to appear, dark and dreamlike, in front of you, but something goes awry. The sentences don’t flow. Everything is half-baked, clumsy; like a five-year-old on his standardised national test, you shake and tremble and break down in tears as the dialogue that finally emerges seems to have come straight from the aforementioned five-year-old. Sucks to be you.

Be reassured. Everyone goes through this. And it’s easier to fix dodgy work than it is to pour genius onto a blank page. This is where I am with my artwork for Night Shift.

NS2b3

The image here is my first proper attempt at my front cover. I am not happy with it. The figure on the left looks like a robot. The body’s bum is too sharp. Nothing is consistent. There is a distinct lack of harmony.

But getting to this stage is a victory. This is my proof-of-concept: the first real manifestation of the idea I want to bring forth. I had to produce something I’m not happy with so that I can see what’s wrong with both the original idea and the execution – and so I can make subsequent versions better.

The first draft is always the hardest. It takes the most time as you struggle with your tools, with how best to use them, with a lack of prescience and a hole in the bottom of your skills-basket. The second – even if you have to totally scrap the original and start from scratch – will always be easier. You have a map. You have a plan. You know where you’re going. You can avoid the dead-ends and the boggy morasses in favour of higher, more solid, ground.

I will return to my artwork. I will modify my gradient maps (and if you don’t know what a gradient map is, neither did I until a few days ago). I will be more careful with my shading. And, once that’s done, I’ll turn my attention to the equally important choices of font, layout and scaling. Hell, if all else fails I’ve got an idea I can show to a professional so they can do it better.

Now I know where I’m going. With a little luck – and a lot of help – I’ll get there in the end.

State of the nation

I don’t know about you but I’m getting confused. After a long year working on one single project, I’m now all-of-a-multitask. I figure that this might make this blog a little twisty-turny, so I thought I’d best lay out just what I’m doing and where I am.

First off: Oneiromancer. This is my urban fantasy and main line of creation right now. It’s what I’ve been blogging about for the last year, so I won’t bore you too much here. The second draft is currently with the beta-readers; I have a date set in early May for feedback, beers and tears.

After this review I’ll get back to a new draft (about which I will no doubt tell you at length as I swear and twitch uncontrollably at my keyboard) to iron out all the many and varied problems that were drilled painfully into my skull by The Crusher, The Smiling Assassin, The Highbrow Heckler and the rest of the team. Then I’ll begin to think about contemplating the possibility of going back into the submissions process.

Then there’s Night Shift. I introduced all my work in this post, which is worth a look if you’re totally flummoxed with all these titles. Night Shift is complete – the only work that I’m happy to describe as ‘finished’; that’s after it was critiqued (twice) by an agent. This is the one I’m currently working on self-publishing, having exhausted traditional lines of enquiry.

I’m – that is to say my wife, the Photoshop Queen, is – currently working on a cover. I’m hoping to be able to bring you preview images for your criticism at some point, and so I may well bring my focus to bear periodically over the coming months. But there’s little to say about it right now. I had hoped that self-publishing would provide new bounteous inspiration to share with you here, but so far I am somewhat becalmed. We shall see.

And finally we have Australis. The problem child. Night Shift’s back-to-back-written sequel, over three years ago now. This is the one that’s been giving me considerable pain in the unmentionables ever since. The middle part of a trilogy always turns out to be the most difficult, probably due to ‘psychology’ or some such nonsense.

Around 18 months ago I did a heavy rewrite of Australis, adding in new characters, softening some elements and transforming the story into more of an adventure. I’ve not looked at the damn thing since, but now I’m wading back into the great sea of editation to try and form something vaguely watertight.

So I am doing three things at once: Oneiromancer is my main project. Night Shift is bubbling under, words sorted but all the publish-y details to be arranged. And Australis is my betweentime endeavour; the one I’ll be working on when the others aren’t occupying my tiny mind. My last action was to amputate the first chapter and a half; I’ll shortly be back to try and fill in the gaps I’ve left.

And whilst I’m doing all this I’m rubbing my two remaining braincells together to devise a completely new project: on my mind is an Asterix-inspired sequel to Oneiromancer and a stand-alone YA (possibly) steampunk (possibly) inspired adventure.

Because I’m a writer. This is what I do.

Boredom? Sorry, son, no time for that round here.

The ruiners of bliss

Last week I explained in my usual half-assed, rough-and-ready way, my intention to self-publish. Now I need to confront my demons. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve no experience and no talent. And I want to do it properly. In my way stand three great enemies. They must be vanquished before I can proceed. They are:

  • Ignorance
  • Impatience
  • Indolence

and they are the ruiners of bliss.

I’m not bothered about formatting. Although the word ‘Styles’ with regards to MS Word still fills me with trepidation, and though I’ve never been closer than a basilisk’s glance from Createspace or any such software, I can cope with technical demands of formatting. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it, even if it means going through my manuscript paragraph by paragraph and uplifting a chunk at a time.

No, what fills me with fear is the idea of creating a cover.

I have no artistic talent. I have no skill with Photoshop or any of the other magnificent cover-generating softwares. I have ideas – some possibly even good – and I know what I want. I can see the finished cover in my mind. But how to get from a vision to a reality? I am ignorant. And I don’t want to spend months learning new skills when it feels like a distraction from my real work. Nor do I want to pay to have it done for me. It’s not so much that I resent spending money (although I do), but that I want to do it myself – at least the thrashing-out of the plan, the original outline, which someone better than me subsequently polishes up.

I am also afraid of approaching a stranger. There is a touch of the misanthrope about me. People are scary.

I am ignorant of the ways of art. I am indolent in that I don’t want to take the time to develop said skills. And I am impatient to get it done whilst I have a bit of free time and a mind focussed on the project.

I am also determined not to put out a half-assed job. There are a lot of bad covers out there. I don’t want my work to be considered in their ranks.

So what do I do? The real enemy is not the task in front of me. It is in my head. That strange combination of cluelessness and possessiveness. This is my baby. I just have no idea how to present it at its best; shit, snot and vomit-free.

I want it all. I want a great job done without taking any time to learn how to do it and without spending any money. Is that really too much to ask?

A decision

Oneiromancer is with my beta-readers. I am entering the long, dark, tea-time of the soul and the only answer is more work. After the adrenaline rush of finishing a draft I just want to bury myself in a new project – at least until the feedback comes straggling in and I’m enveloped in another round of editation.

So it’s time to self-publish.

I still like the idea of going through the traditional agented route. I write with the hope of finding a backer who’ll take me onto bookshop shelves. The good thing is that it’s becoming more and common for authors to take both paths; self- and traditional publishing are complimentary, not competitive.

The truth is that I don’t have the time or the energy to push my back-catalogue any more. This is work I believe in, that I’ve spent countless hours on. So I’m faced with a choice: I can put those novels into the bottom drawer and forget about them, or I can try and push them out myself.

I’m not doing this for riches – I’m not so naïve – or for acclaim; I know how few connections I have and – perhaps more to the point – I know how lazy I am, how easily distracted. I’m not planning a great marketing campaign or to spend my weekends shivering ignored at car-boot sales. I’m not even planning on getting hard copies – ebooks are my way forwards, even though it seems like sales have peaked. My sense of timing is, as ever, impeccable.

But I want to get my work into the public domain. I want to call it finished. I want to fill my Twitter-feed with rampant self-promotion and egomaniacal desperation and delusion. And I want to know how it’s done; to go through the process of cover design and formatting and all the other things that I know only from the outside.

And I want to do it without spending any money.

It will be an adventure. It will be a challenge. It will be an experience. And even if I fail, even if I decide it’s all too much for me and I can’t do it to a sufficient standard for it to be worth doing at all, I will at least know that what I’ve been saying on this blog – all my discussions and criticism and analysis – has been based on ignorance and idiocy.

Or I can learn new skills; develop myself and (possibly) my brand, and have new things to talk about on this blog. I can confirm or confront my preconceptions and be able to talk authoritatively about things I’ve so far only guessed at. Either way it will be worthwhile.

And you get to join me through the process. Aren’t you the lucky ones?

The propaganda war: how to sell your masterwork

Okay, here’s how it works: if you’ve just released a book – self-pubbed or trad – and you’re wondering how to promote it then you’ve already got it wrong. Sorry if that’s a harsh message, but it’s true. In order to successfully promote your work then you have to have been building a presence on the internet (because what else matters?) for months – if not years – prior to your first release.

It’s a rare thing that anyone will buy a book simply on the basis of its cover or its glowing Amazon reviews or on the endorsement of people they’ve never heard of. Studies (that I can’t quote, sorry) show that you have to have heard an author’s name (or a band, or an artist) at least five times before you’ll consider buying one of their works. I’m proof of this. I’m on Twitter. Some names I come across with regularity. Those people – whose comments I appreciate and enjoy – are the ones I’m going to take a punt on. The one-note shouters will never see my money, thank you very much.

Selling books is not an overnight thing. You are fighting the long war, deep in the longue duree. That’s why I’m writing this blog. That’s why I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn. I have no product to sell – yet. One day I will have. And I’ll have a body of work – more than that, I’ll have a personality. I’m (hopefully) not just another barker shouting on the street corner. I’m a human being and people are much more impressed with humans than they are replicants.

That’s what I think, anyway.

With that in mind, here’s my incomplete list of methods of promoting your book and a few thoughts thrown in, just for good measure.

Social media

o Twitter

Twitter is my favourite method of social-mediaising but one that is magnificently and amusingly misused. Anyone whose tweets consist of nothing but self-promotion will soon find themselves followerless. There is a rough guide or rule known as the 50-30-20 breakdown: 50% of your tweets should be other people’s posts retweeted; 30% should be your own thoughts/comments; and only 20% should be promoting your own work. Personally I’d say it should be more 45-45-10

o Facebook

I’m not quite sure why authors use Facebook other than to separate their personal and professional lives – which is not an insignificant thing and is something I intend to get round to doing at some point. I’d say that the same rule applies here as given for Twitter. Don’t just use it as a selling-point. The best thing you can do with all thee things is to get people looking at your blog/website, on which more later

o LinkedIn

LinkedIn isn’t a selling platform and shouldn’t be used as such. It is, however, a good way of communicating with other authors and building up networks, as well as finding interesting debates and learning more about other people’s perspectives/experiences

o YouTube

I’ve never done this, so my experience is perforce somewhat limited. But I gather that it’s increasingly common for authors to promote their work with book trailers and/or audio readings. I’m not too sure what to make of this. I’d suspect that you’d need something really well-produced (which is not the same as flashy) to make an impact. If anyone’s tried this I’d be interested to see how it worked for them

Being Nice to People

This section was originally called Networking, but people get the wrong idea about this. They think that it’s all about schmoozing in trendy Soho winebars (or, if you’re American, insert a poncy area of New York), or trying to catch an eye at a party, of pushing yourself beyond human decency for the sake of a small advantage. Hell, you’re probably thinking of the casting couch or something, aren’t you?

It’s not. It’s none of these. It’s about looking around you at your friends and asking yourself who they know. Or what they do. It’s about asking favours. It’s about being polite and respectful and not pushing – but asking nonetheless.

Just take a moment to think about your friends and acquaintances. Where do your colleagues work? Might they be willing to ask a favour on your behalf? Are they easily bribed with wine or chocolate (because a favour deserves a thank you)? By this stage in your career you should be in a writing group; there, already, are a lot of people who might have thoughts or ideas or contacts. Ask them. I wager they’ll be willing to help. The only price, save the aforementioned wine, is that you’ll be expected to return the favour.

Example: in my writing group there is a local writing festival organiser. There are a few who work for major (non-fiction) publishers. There was a professional copy-editor. At least one is agented: several past members are fully published. This is only a small selection – and here I’m only looking at professional activities. I’ve not even touched on their friends.

There is a reason why Six Degrees of Separation is a game/concept. You know people who know people who know people. You don’t have to push, you don’t have to dig, you don’t have to be some arrogant Hollywood big-shot to network. Just be polite. Be nice to people. Help others. And they’ll be a lot more willing to help you in return.

Personal appearances

Whether public appearances work for you or not really depends on your personality and the nature of your work: it’s a lot harder to do school visits if your work is a Regency Bonkbuster or The New Stephen King than a nice educational children’s book. Below are a few ideas, tailorable to your particular idiom:

o Book release parties
o School visits
o Library visits
o Care home visits
o Workshops
o Stalls in markets
o Book Fair appearances/stalls

A few notes: I don’t know about you, but the idea of most of these fill me with horror. The best way to overcome your fear is to combine your efforts with those of other local authors. If you’re not in a writing group then you’re missing out. The mutual support is invaluable.

Secondly, make sure you invite everyone. Not just your friends, but contact the local press, any book-bloggers you might be following on Twitter (not for school visits: they’re a bit fussy, these days, about who walks in to chat with the kids) – hell, take punts and invite celebrities. Remember what I said about having to have heard a name five times before it settles in the brain? Most people you invite won’t come. But really – what have you got to lose? Email is free. Just be polite and unpushy. Invite literary agents because you never know who might be in town. Note, though, that if you’re theming the event – for example if all the authors appearing specialise in science-fiction – then you’ll lose credibility if you send a group email to every single entry in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.

Actually, never send group emails. To anyone.

The Written Word

There aren’t enough journalists these days. Those that still exist are overworked and underpaid and are desperate for copy to fall on their desk that they can shove in the papers without any input from them. So whatever you do make sure you write a press-release and send it out to the local rag. And when I say ‘local rag’ I mean any rag that you’ve ever been local to. For example: I was born in Bradford, moved to Norfolk, went to university in Belfast and now live in Oxfordshire. So that’s four places to which I am local, every one of which has multiple papers to target.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of writing a press release here. I’m sure you can find guides around the internet. A few quick notes, however:

o  Attach a photograph of you and your book
o  Say you’re available for interview (which can be done over the phone, Skype or other modern contrivance, so don’t worry too much about travel)
o  Personalise your letter to the area you’re targeting: for example, in my letter to Bradford I’d say how the local libraries shaped my writing growth
o  Try and make it ready to be inserted, as is, into their paper. Minimise the work the editor has to do to make it ‘fit’
o  Don’t send a copy of the book but do make it clear that you’ll provide a copy for review upon request

If they get back to you and invite you for an interview (don’t laugh; it’s happened to people I know) then for heaven’s sake take them up on the offer!

o Reviews

Before your book is released you should be contacting all the book-bloggers you’re following on Twitter (you are doing this, right?) and asking if they’re willing to review your book. Many won’t: the biggest will be choked with people like you. But you can only lose if you’re rude or abusive. And some will take it – and if you do a get a review, be grateful – even if they say you’re a horrible writer whose entire back catalogue should be ritually purged and all mention of your existence be expunged from history.

o Merchandise

It’s always worth getting some bookmarks (which double as business cards, with your internet presence highlighted – probably not email address: Twitter, Facebook and your website/blog addresses will be fine) to give out at any events you do host or take part in. Bear in mind that many people aren’t prepared to spend money on the spot. Most people like to go away and reflect before committing to a purchase. Make it easy for them. Chances are that if they have to hunt to find you they’ll just give up. Don’t let that happen.

o Your personal blog/website

I’ve left this until last because it’s the single most important thing you can have. It also ties together everything I’ve mentioned above. It doesn’t have to be anything like this: it doesn’t have to consist of regular musings on your life and of your irritations with the way the world is persistently ignoring you.

What you need is a portal from which people can see everything I’ve outlined above. It’s a place for people to springboard onto your Twitter feed, your Facebook group. It should outline your work and provide links for people who want to buy it. You can copy (or link to) any mentions you get in the press. Any events you’re involved with should be mentioned (and, if it’s an open event, this is where you place the invite).

Publishers and literary agents do look at these things. A good website might not sell you a deal but a bad one – or an absent one – might lose you one.

If you’ve not got one of these, do it. Do it now.

A final note (or two):

Perhaps the best thing you can do to promote your own work is to promote the work of other people. That might sound counterintuitive but it’s true. People remember nice people: not only the person you’re helping (who might well return the favour) but the casual Twitter-stroller will notice, maybe not even consciously, and will lodge you somewhere in their brains as someone to do – so to speak – later. I’ve followed many people because they’ve shared something I’m interested in: never heard of them before; oh, they’ve put something up. Let’s have a look at their profile…

It works. Try it.

Finally, just remember what I said about the longue duree. This isn’t a sprint. These things don’t happen overnight. No one single thing is going to make you the next Hugh Howey or – god help you – EL James. It takes sustained effort, time and patience to make a career as a writer. But it is doable. Relax. Take your time. Enjoy the process.

Remember: nice guys finish first.

The case against self-publishing

On Twitter I am the (mostly) welcoming recipient of a lot of puff. There’s always loads of authors looking to claw together sales, and, through tweets and retweets, a fair bit of it ends up at my door. Some of it interests me. Sometimes I might take a punt. Sometimes I look at it and think ‘well, that’s not for me but it’s an interesting idea.’ Some of it I find just totally infuriating.

I can forgive the odd typo (there are enough in traditionally-published works, after all) and the occasional clumsy phrase if the story carries me through. I’m not a massive perfectionist – not in other people’s work, at least. But what I cannot forgive are errors in the promotional material itself.

Now I’m in a bit of a bind here. You want examples, right? Thing is, I don’t think it’s fair on authors – who I’m sure have put a lot of time, maybe a bit of money, into their work – to humiliate them in a public forum. See, there by the grace of Picard go I. Had the e-publishing revolution happened five, maybe ten years ago, I’d have been in this very position myself. You can bet your bottom Florint that one of these would have been available for purchase right now – and it’s likely (probable) that I’d have made the same mistakes in my enthusiasm and idealism. I am not anti-self-publishing. It just angers me to see stupid self-publishing. The sort I’d have produced five years ago.

Some egregiousnesses, all taken from tweets I’ve received in the last week or two:

  • Promotional material containing the phrase ‘Three times in the least.’ I mean, come on. I’m never going to spend money – or waste my valuable reading time – on something that promotes itself with such bad English. ‘At least three times.’ Come on, it’s not hard
  • ‘Tatsier’. On a cover. I know typos happen and I know they’re right buggers to find. But on a cover? No. If you only have half-a-dozen words to proof-read then I expect it to be error-free. ‘Tastier’. Again, not hard
  • The cover looks fine, no typos in the puff, all elements present and correct: so you follow the link to Amazon, click on the ‘more details’ tab… And what’s revealed looks like it was written by a student. Of astrophysics.

And all that’s before we get to this batch of beauties.

This stuff matters, folks. I will never buy a book if it looks as if the writer can’t be bothered. Right or wrong, if you can’t use good English (not necessarily ‘correct’ or grammatical English, but language true to the book’s contents) in your promotion then I can have no faith in the words beyond the cover.

I get angry about this. I have to work really hard not to fire off sarcastic tweets – I’ve been criticised myself, I know it hurts and I don’t want to inflict this pain on others. Sometimes I think I’d be actually helping the author by pointing out the flaws – but I don’t think I could hold my annoyance out of sight and I don’t want to be that person. Who am I, after all? Hey, at least these people have got work out there in the public eye. I’ve only got this blog, and nobody gives a damn about that.

Why does this annoy me so? Partly because I’m that sort of person: not quite a grammar Nazi, maybe more the Castro of correctness or the Amin of anality. But there are consequences. Every ‘bad’ book that’s self-published makes it harder for the good ones to be seen. And – I’ll say it again – there are some really, really good stories to be found. There is no filter on the industry. We are drowning in a tide of mediocrity and, whilst I really don’t want to squash the unique voices that would never get a trad-pubbed released, we need help to find a way back to the shore. We need an island, a reef where we know these self-pubbed books are of genuine quality.

[Irony alert: after drafting this entry but before posting I received the Great Rejection of Doom. I may well be joining the ranks of the self-published myself, sooner rather than later. You can’t write the same book forever – sometimes you just need to get it out there and move on.]

For what it’s worth, let me finish by promoting the following self-published authors, who I know write good stuff and – I believe – are worthy of your time:

Finally – finally finally – I’m going to be away (on honeymoon, no less) for the next coupla weeks. That means no blogs for a little while. You have fun – and behave yourselves – whilst I’m away, mmmkay?