Designing your own book cover, part three

My biggest disaster in cover design came with z2.

By the time I finished writing it, I had two books out there with covers I loved. Yet, this new novel was my most complicated. It was about the the nature of time and special relativity, but it was also about white nationalists and immigration and the hunt for a Maya treasure. It touched on Guatemala and Belize and yet took place mostly at a high school in Houston. This odd plot all came together, at least for me, but I hadn’t a clue of what I wanted my reader to see on the cover.

So I turned to three very different people to help me. One was Jen from Mother Spider, who had produced the two covers I already loved, but she had done those with a good deal put of input from me. This time, she read over my plot description, and took her first at stab at creating a cover from scratch. Her work is above and I still think it’s pretty good. If the boy’s back pack hadn’t looked to me like the profile of a face, I might have used it without consulting anyone else and my life would have been so much simpler.

But because I didn’t like the backpack, I involved a second person, my husband. He had no particular qualifications other than he knew me and what I like, and the protagonist was modeled after him. I thought that combination might produce a flash of brilliance, but I should have factorized in what would matter to him or anyone in his shoes. He didn’t like the old and balding Alex holding the clock. He wanted a young and athletic Alex on the cover. A good-looking Alex. Sigh …. Of course he did. For some reason he also didn’t like the blue. I found the basketball guy and changed to a green but I was at a loss for what else to do. So I asked my sister for ideas.

Now, my sister is a successful business woman who runs her own travel company and has handled all of her own graphics and marketing for years. She’s very good at this stuff.  Within minutes of asking I had coins to symbolize treasure and Maya statues that she was quite pleased to have found and I sent them off to Jen who produced the cover to the upper right. It wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t sure we were going in the right direction. So I asked my sister for more ideas, and that was the real problem.

I was sort of like someone who wants to fire a few BB’s at a squirrel to scare it off the lawn and gets handed an AK-47. Before I knew it I had dozens if not hundreds of relevant images and so many cover ideas that my head hurt. Take a look at a couple of the wild combinations. Oh, and my sister loved the blue and hated the green. Ahh….

My book was ready to be published on Kindle and graphic artists Jen was understandably running out of patience as I kept coming up with ever more convoluted combinations, none of which made me happy. I had to make a decision. I picked something that I thought would please everyone a little and my novel first appeared with the cover below.

It took me no more than a few days to accept that I did not particularly like it. I didn’t want blue or green on the cover and now that I thought about it I wasn’t sure how I’d ended up having to choose between the two. I liked the old bald Alex and his glowing clock and I didn’t want Maya statues or coins and never had.

So I came back to Jen, apologized for the massive confusion and offered her more money to try it again. We talked about what mattered to me, and she produced the cover to the right. It was far closer to what I wanted. The only part I didn’t like was the odd gold border, but I decided I’d been picky enough and could live with it.

Luckily for me, when Jen would work on the cover for my next book, she would notice the border and ask me how we’d ended up with it when the others had no such thing. Good question.  She and I would decide together to take one last stab at getting this book the cover it deserved. The final, final result is to the left. Isn’t it gorgeous? It took over a year and countless failed drafts, but now it is my favorite of all five.

I’m pretty sure that one main lesson here is to not involve too many cooks, no matter how adept they are or how much you like them. Another is to go ahead and persist until you are satisfied. A book cover, for better or worse, is how the world will see your creation. If you love the creation but don’t like the cover, this is not a good thing. Be picky.

Another important lesson I got out of this experience was to not to hang on to an idea, trying to force it to work. I should have gotten rid of those coins, statues, colored letters and gold border before any of them saw the light of day.

It was a helpful lesson once I started designing the cover for book six. I was sure I needed a female judoka on the cover, and I tried so hard to find a model that matched my character. None did, but this young woman came the closest. I played with variations for weeks before I recognized that I was trying to make something fit that wasn’t meant to be. Once I gave up on the idea and moved on, I found the direction I really wanted to go.

(For more on this topic see Designing your own book cover, part 1 and Designing your own book cover, part 2.)

 

 

A better word than hope?

Soon after I began writing my third novel, I realized that it was going to center around the theme of hope. I’d already gone with such lofty themes as peace and joy in my first two novels, so when it came to the big words in life, I felt like I was on a roll. It helped that my protagonist was an aging athlete, and I wanted to him to find the one thing that I’d noticed aging robbed humans of most often.

But hope wasn’t quite the word I meant, any more than peace and joy had been with the first two books. I was trying to talk about refusing to let go of fears and animosity from the past, and refusing to give others a chance based on old experiences. And I was talking about the belief that humans cannot change, that they cannot learn to be, or choose to be, better.

Having already written two stories that took place on opposite sides of the globe, I decided to place this third tale more or less halfway in between. That took to me to the southern reaches of North America; to Belize, Guatemala and Southern Mexico. It also to took me to my own home in Houston. “Hope” looked to be a perfect theme as my research led me to the history of the civilizations and their clashes in this heated part of the globe.

By now, I knew I was doing a rainbow with my books. This was fueled by my love of physics and my fascination with light (or more correctly the electromagnetic spectrum) and I was already planning to give light waves a starring role in this third story. The fact that rainbows had been used over the years to symbolize racial harmony, and LGBT acceptance, was an added plus.

The rainbow thing meant that this book had to be yellow, which was perfect. Yellow is for bright sunshine breaking through on a cloudy day. Yellow is for the first flowers poking through the winter snow. My book was bright yellow for a word that means

the belief that the ills of the past are not an inevitable part of the future, and the knowledge that life can be better, and will be better, if we do our best to make it so.

We do need a word for that.

 

(For more thought on words we need, see A better word than loyalty?, A better word than peace?, A better word than joy? and A better word than courage?)

 

Missing the Eclipse: There is Always Another?

I’ve wanted to see a total eclipse of the sun for as long as I can remember. I was a child who was fascinated by astronomy. By sixth grade I’d read every book that Jefferson West Elementary School had on the subject and I’d moved on to the Hays public library and was making pretty good progress there.

But it takes money, often a lot of money, to get the the remote locations in which that thin strip of totality seems to always lie. So, imagine my excitement when I read last February that a swatch of total eclipse was going to reach from Oregon to my home state of North Carolina.

Then, imagine my reaction when I realized that I would not be here for the big event. Days earlier I had booked non-refundable airline tickets for four to Kenya for the safari trip of a lifetime. No, the eclipse would not be visible in Kenya. No, the tickets could not be changed. Maybe I should have checked, but seriously, who looks at a schedule of eclipses before they plan a trip?

I cut my losses, focused on the excitement of my upcoming journey, and tried to ignore the ever-increasing hype about the eclipse as mid-August approached.

I had a great time in Kenya. And, the good old reliable sun provided me with a lot of beautiful photos, so I didn’t feel completely cheated out of celestial beauty.

Meanwhile, some of those closest to me headed over to nearby Charleston SC for nature’s big show. Our home near Asheville wasn’t in the path of totality. But, we have kin in Charleston, and it seemed like  a terrific place to view an eclipse: all that wide expanse of ocean, all those great restaurants and things to do, and a relative’s condo that was available for free.

Only the total eclipse didn’t happen quite as expected. Yes, the moon passed in front of the sun for a couple of minutes, but it never got dark, like in the NASA photo shown at the top of this post. It was more dusky, like part way through a sunset. According to some theories, light from outside the totality band was reflected off of the ocean, preventing complete darkness. Whatever the cause, an iPhone captured totality like this. It was a cool experience, according to those who were there, but not quite the extreme event they were lead to expect.

I’m in Charleston today, thinking about the eclipse that I missed. That was about 28 days ago and we are back to the new moon. This time, the moon won’t pass directly in front of the sun, at least from where I am sitting. But it will from somewhere, even if that somewhere is out in space.

Sooner or later, I hope to find a way to put myself directly in that shadow. Will the experience live up to all of my expectations? Maybe. Maybe not.

Meanwhile, here is how the sun, and that invisible new moon, are looking today in the Charleston area, just one full cycle of the moon later.

Not too shabby. If this is the best solar event I get to see for awhile, I’m not going to feel so bad about it.

 

Still a Sunrise?

Going for a stroll in Kenya

I arrived back from Africa on Saturday, and the first thing I encountered was more people from Africa. Specifically, I had two Uber drivers. One, from Ghana, took me to where I was staying overnight en route and the second, from Sierra Leone, took me back to the airport at 6 am to catch my final flight home.
I had been visiting Kenya, which sets about 3500 miles away across a continent from both of these men’s homes, yet their faces lit up when they heard where I had been. Both had been in the US for years, trying, in their own words, to make a better life.

My travels had added a new layer of understanding to what they meant.

Sun on the horizon in Kenya

I had spent some time talking to my Kenyan guide, learning about his life and his hopes for his four-year-old daughter as she grows. He is determined to see her become well educated, even though such an opportunity was beyond his reach.

What would you have studied?
“I wanted to become a lawyer,” he laughed. “Obviously that was impossible in my situation.”
As we traveled, I couldn’t help but notice the way he negotiated his way through the problems we encountered. Your instincts were good, I thought. You’d have made a fine lawyer. But I kept my thoughts to myself.
“What do you hope your daughter studies?” I asked.
The question seemed to make him sad.

The U.S. presence in Kenya

“She won’t have so many options to choose from,” he told me. He’d been careful to keep most of his opinions to himself as we traveled, and this is probably a wise thing for any travel guide, anywhere, to do. But for just a moment he spoke from his heart.

“It doesn’t bother me that you don’t appreciate all the opportunities that you have in your country. What bothers me is that you don’t even recognize that you have them.”

He’s right, I thought. We don’t recognize it. Most of us have done little to nothing to create those opportunities and yet we not only see them as normal, we act as though they are our birthright.
Perspective is one of the many and better benefits of travel.
This week, it introduced to me three men. One is working hard to provide his daughter a better life. Two have left their families, friends and cultures behind to seek better lives for themselves.

George Washington’s chair

Stop me if I’m wrong here, but isn’t this sort of hard work and goals that we are so proud of in the United States; the very thing we believe built this nation?

I ask because while I was doing all this listening and thinking, white supremacist groups in my country were carrying on to a frightening degree. Others are still clamoring to cut immigration way back to keep all these “undesirables” from coming in.

I once heard a story that George Washington had a chair decorated with a sun along the horizon and that Benjamin Franklin said “I have often looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I… know that it is a rising…sun.

Sunrise at Dulles

I thought of that story as the cab driver from Sierra Leone dropped me off at the airport and I was treated to the sight of the sun rising over Washington D.C.

Hey America, do  you think that it is still a rising sun on that chair? I think it can be, but only if we are smart enough to recognize the things we take for granted and strong enough to refuse to let fear and bigotry be our guide.

Believe.

What should determine your behavior? How you feel at the moment? What you think of those around you? What those around you think?

All of those things do have an effect, even if we don’t think they should. But my current favorite film focuses on a different answer, and it’s got me thinking.

The way you behave should be largely shaped by what you believe in. And if it isn’t, it’s time to take a hard look at either your behavior, or your beliefs.

I can give you a long list of things I do not believe in, and an even longer list of kind-ofs to which I can add many qualifiers. But today, I’m forcing myself to make a short list of simple virtues in which I firmly believe. Virtues that can shape my everyday actions, you know, Wonder Woman style.

This should be easy. I have plenty of beliefs. I’ll pick one.

I believe in tolerance. That means letting me be me and letting you be you. Yes, I can hear the qualifiers creeping already. No one should tolerate one human harming another. Okay, I agree. But what do we do on the fringes? The barely harming that some say isn’t harming at all?

Image result for confederate flagI live in North Carolina and the confederate flag is a great example. I cringe when I see it. I have neighbors who find that intolerant. I find the flag itself intolerant. We are at an impasse, my neighbors and I, each unwilling to tolerate each other’s intolerance. What a mess.

So let me try another word. I believe in inclusion. Young, old, all races, religions, sexual orientations and body types. We are all beautiful. Except, of course, for the people who think we are not. They’re ugly.

Try again. I believe that we all need to accept each other as equally valid expressions of what it means to be human. No one gets excluded from anything based on the bodies they were born into, the cultures that raised them, or the personal preferences they now have.

Hey, I think that works.

That does not mean we have to tolerate each other’s bad behavior. In fact, at some point we have to act to stop it. And no, I don’t know exactly where that point is but I am sure it exists.

I believe in tolerance. I do. Tolerance means you’re beautiful, because you are a miracle and  I’m beautiful because I am one too.

We both need to act like it, and that is my belief for the day.

(For more Wonder Woman inspired thoughts, see Top Requirement for a Superhero,  It’s About What You Believe, I believe in appreciating those who protect us. All of them, and Believe in Tomorrow.)

 

And that’s the way it was, June 10 1947

She turned twenty-one that day, and married her high school sweetheart. He was about to turn twenty-two, and had already returned from the war, smoking cigarettes and telling tales of the motorcycle he had learned to ride. She thought that he seemed pretty full of himself since his return, but she married him anyway at the small country church in the town in which she was raised. A 9:00 mass was followed by a giant buffet lunch which was followed by an afternoon of drinking and dancing and then a lavish dinner with more dancing and drinking after that.

It’s a wonder marriages got consummated after such a day, but they did. She was a farm girl, and astounded to discover that the male human had parts quite similar to all the male animals for which she cared. That possibility had never occurred to her. She and her husband would laugh about that for years.

On June 10, 1957 she wore pink costume jewelry and put her black hair in a Liz Taylor style coiffure. She dressed her little daughters in pink frills too as the family celebrated the tenth anniversary of the big day. Then she and her husband had highballs, and went out for steaks. They were living the good life.

On June 10, 1972 they went to Hawaii to celebrate their 25th anniversary. When they returned they hosted a luau for all their friends, wearing shiny silver clothes and passing out leis make from real flowers. Most people thought that there had never been a party quite like it before in all of Western Kansas.

On June 10, 1987 they had a ruby-themed celebration of their 40th anniversary. Their daughters, partners and grand kids all dressed in bright red and the parish priest graciously allowed the crimson festivities to flow into an anniversary mass with family members performing special songs and readings. He did remark quietly that his church had never seen anything quite like it before.

On June 10, 1997 her children and grandchildren consoled her as best they could. A small birthday cake, and giving her the time and space to cry, seemed the best they could do. She kept a photo of him next to her cake.

On June 10, 2006 her family took her on a cruise for her eightieth birthday. She was recovering from pneumonia and could barely make the trip, but she tried to have fun. She would never fully regain her strength after that.

And today, on June 10, 2017, several people will raise a glass and drink to what began seventy years ago. Every day has its events, they always cause some ripples. Many of those last a century or more.

But only a few days have the power, seven decades later, to bring a smile to the lips of those weren’t even there, and who owe their very world to what happened on that day.

(For more segments about June days from long ago, see That’s the Way It Was June 15, 1984, June 18, 1972, June 28, 1888, and June 30, 1940.)

 

Leaving a Light Footprint in a Far Away Place

I remember visiting Yellowstone as a teenager and being upset that I was not allowed to take even one tiny little insignificant rock home as a souvenir.  Up to that time, I always brought a rock home from places I enjoyed. What difference could my little memento make?

Then I looked around. Thousands of people were here with me, and if I was the only one who ever took a pretty stone, there would be no problem. But what if half of them wanted rocks, too?

It was something of an epiphany to realize that while a never-before-seen insect or two on ones front porch is interesting, ten thousand such insects on the porch is frightening. Maybe even a plague. It was more of an epiphany to understand that it works pretty much the same for humans as for bugs. Take one or two of us out of our home environment and put us somewhere else, and we’re interesting. But if thousands of us suddenly plop up somewhere new, we become a problem. Maybe even a plague.

Today, I am an adult who loves to travel, and my books and my blogs reflect my belief that peace and compassion are byproducts of visiting places far from our own. However, in a world where many now have the means and desire to explore far away places (which is good), we risk harming every place to which we swarm (which is bad).

Back when I wrote z2, main characters Alex and Lola had to visit Guatemala and Belize as part of the plot. As I researched their vacation, I came upon the concept of ecotourism and immediately wanted my characters to embrace this idea. This was the result.

As the van from their lodge left the lowlands the next morning and entered the mountainous area of western Belize, Alex thought that the vacation portion of this trip had pretty much ended. So he was surprised by the breathtaking beauty.

The lodge itself was nestled in between two small waterfalls and surrounded by tropical forest. Even just standing in the parking lot Alex could see wild orchids growing and brightly colored parrots flitting about. It was a fantasy set in a version of paradise.

“Why don’t you tell the world that this place is so gorgeous?” Lola was exclaiming.

“Many tourists are a mixed blessing,” the driver smiled back at her. Of course, Alex thought. We bring money, something the region sorely needs. But we also bring us.

The lodge that Lola had selected advertised its allegiance to sustainable ecotourism. In the past Alex had honestly paid very little attention to that concept. But now, looking at the array of spectacular plant life in front of him, and remembering the clear struggle for life he had seen while diving around reefs only a few days ago, he was proud and happy that Lola had persuaded him to spend the extra to be staying at a facility that at least gave some conscious thought to the problem.

A few days ago I got introduced to a documentary being made by relatives of a friend of mine. He is from Easter Island, and they are working to finish a film about the challenges caused by having a massive number of humans decide to put a visit to Easter Island on their bucket list.

It looks like it will be a thought-provoking look into how our common yen to visit far away places has consequences, and how we would be well-served to keep them in mind. Enjoy the video below and check out their Kickstarter page to learn more.

(For more thoughts on Far Away Places see As Far Away Places Edge Closer, Caring About Far Away Places, The Courage to Embrace Those Far Away Places, and Those Far Away Places Could Be Next Door.)