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?)

 

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.)

Point of View

I violate one of the basic rules of storytelling. I do it often, I do it on purpose, and I like doing it.

The rule is to pick a point of view and stick to it, at least for a full chapter. But because the stories I tell myself are never told from a single point of view for very long, how could the stories I tell others ever be? One of my greatest fascinations with a tale is how differently the events appear to various characters. So if you read something I write, be prepared to hear the plot unfold through several sets of eyes.

My latest book is providing me with new challenges in this regard. As the sixth and last book in my 46. Ascending collection, it features a dozen characters with five unusual powers as they learn to work together. I’m having fun changing the point of view, but am also striving to find new ways to do it so that it doesn’t leave my readers’ heads spinning.

My character Alex, who can slow down or speed up time, reacts to save his wife Lola while they are aboard a cruise ship in a storm at sea. I tried this technique for showing how they both experience what happens.

About twelve minutes later, or so it seemed to her, a series of sharp knocks on the cabin door woke all three of them. A pleasant young man brought in a tray of dry snacks, cartons of water, more motion sickness treatments, and extra pillows, cushions and even bungee cords for securing people and things.

“We are in a bit of a lull now,” he cheerfully informed them “and the rain has stopped. The captain says that if you want a spot of air on deck at all today, now would be the time to take it.”

“I’ll pass,” Maurice muttered without moving. “But I will take a look at your pill selection.”

“I could really use the fresh air,” Lola said. She looked at Alex hopefully. He knew how hard it was for her to stay in the enclosed cabin.

“Let’s both go get a breath of it,” he agreed.

After that, their recollections would always be different.

She would remembered wanting to leave the cabin quickly before he changed his mind.

He would remembered wondering why she didn’t stop to put on something besides those stupid cheap slippers she’d bought in Ushuaia.

She would remember hurrying down the hall because she wanted to catch the heavy metal door before it latched completely behind a couple coming back inside.

He would remember being annoyed because he had to speed up to join her as he felt a large gust of wind blow through the open door.

She would remember bounding outside, then looking up and being overwhelmed at the sight of the unusually large wave on the other ship of the ship. She would recall the roar of it, the froth of it, the fear of it as she started to slide backwards with the tilt of the deck.

He would never even see the wave. As he reached the door, he would be looking down, watching her momentum carry her into a slide as she slipped along an improbably tilted deck towards a rail that was clearly inadequate, coming only as high as her thighs for christsakes but sticking out way over the ocean, and what the hell kind of guard rail was that?

She wouldn’t even remember a guard rail, just a second of terror, a realization that she was going over board.

He would see her slow down, way down, almost stopping as she hung there.

She would remember Alex grabbing her arm so fast she thought he’d dislocated her shoulder, then both of them slamming onto the deck and sliding backwards towards the door, with Alex grabbing on to something as the boat made a high-angle lurch the other way and then a few more frightening tilts back and forth.

He would remember time speeding back up as she cried and shivered with the cold and the shock, and thinking that he had almost lost her again.

She would only remember thanking him and telling him that she loved him.

He would remember silently holding her to warm her, and hoping she understood how much he loved her too.

(For more excerpts from my new novel visit Am I sure I’m Sherrie?, Worry about those you love and write about what you know, Cease worrying when you can and write about what you know, and The Amazing Things I Get to Do.)

Safety in Science Fiction

Taking the time to read Charles Yu’s “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” was a special treat for me. If I let myself read science fiction at all these days, it is flash fiction; something that won’t stick in my head while I try to finish my own science fiction novel. But I was at a retreat for three days, without computer, internet or television, and it was dark before six p.m. What was I to do? So I took peak into Minor Universe 31 and became trapped for many enjoyable hours.

how-to-live-safely-coverHere’s the short review. 1) I give this book five stars. There were many things I loved about it, but the three best were its overall oddness, the way math and science were interwoven into the story, and its brilliant observations about human nature. 2) There were a couple things I didn’t like, but I acknowledge that they may say more about me than they do about the book. 3) I discovered that I can go right ahead and read a novel if it’s this unique, and it doesn’t screw with my inner voice at all. Now I just have to find more books like this.

A slightly longer version of the review would let you know that I have a huge fondness for authors who take chances. Charles Yu takes many, jumping around multiple time lines and repeating a classic scene wherein he shoots himself until the scene finally makes sense to the reader. He creates a multiverse that is almost believable, then hits you over the head with the occasional reminder that this all has to be nonsense. Risky behavior, and I applauded him as I read.

From his use of a schematic instead of a table of contents through his labeling chapters with Greek letters, he not only speaks geek, he uses it to draw you into his protagonist’s world. In spite of the lack of science involved with this book’s actual version of time travel, physics and math permeate other parts of the story, helping the reader to overlook how preposterous the basic premise is.

charlesyuhowtolivesafelyNeither the audacity of the approach nor the nod to science would have made this book brilliant, however. It took Yu’s clever yet valid observations about humans to do that. One of my favorites: “Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward.” Wow. Or how about: “I realized a couple of years ago that not only am I not super skilled at anything, I’m not even particularly good at being myself.” Yeah. And the book is full of gems like these.

Now for what I did not like.

Because I am a writer, I give Yu tremendous credit for creating a time travel story without developing a plausible method for time travel. Because I am a geek, and a geophyscist in my day job, I got quite frustrated with a time travel story that offered no such plausible method. Yu has tied his temporal device to words and tenses, keeping his readers always aware that is a story told by a storyteller. I’m not fond of books and movies that center on writers lives or on the significance of the written word as they can strike me as being full of self-importance. At its worst “How to Live Safely …” crossed that line a few times for me.

Because I am a reader, I give Yu tremendous credit for creating a main character that was sympathetic yet believable, and with whom I could identify in spite of the differing demographics of age, race and gender. Because I am a woman and a mother, I winced at the emphasis on the father-son relationship while mom was largely relegated to her desire to make her son a nice dinner. To be fair, it wasn’t quite that extreme, but given that the other female character in the book is a computer who cries too much, I felt my gender was a bit slighted. That’s me though; the story that Yu had to tell wasn’t much about mothers or women, it was about a young Asian man.

mastershift2jpgBoth the short and long reviews conclude with the fact that I am very glad I read this book. The sheer innovation in it was inspiring, and because it was so unique it didn’t screw with my inner voice at all. I wish that I knew how to read this book for the first time again, but I don’t. I’m just going to have to find more books like this. The problem is that I’m not sure if any others exist, at least not in my particular chronodiegetical schematic.

“Fame”

I believe that one telling characteristic of a person is the music they enjoy. So how could I not feel the same way about my characters? I think about how Alex likes Motown and bubblegum music from the 50’s and 60’s, just like I think about how he likes sports and physics and making a really good pizza from scratch. For me, this is part of the process of getting to know him.
I’m in the process of updating my music page on this blog. I’m including a little description of how each song is referred to in the book, and adding a short excerpt from the chapter that contains the reference to that music. Then, for every song, I’ve found a live performance that I think shows a little of a the personality of the singer or of the song itself. I’ll admit that I’ve had a lot of fun seeking these out. Often the quality of the video isn’t as good as the more glossy clips, but I’ve picked each one for a reason. At the end I am including links to places to buy the music, or learn more about it, and in some cases I am adding related bits about more contemporary music. As always, interested readers are encouraged to support all the artists and websites.
Here is my updated entry for “Fame”,  the first song on the z2 playlist. Enjoy!
FameFebruary is music awards time and the novel z2 begins with hero Alex Zeitman sitting dejectedly in a hospital room watching the 1981 Grammy Awards.  Alex likes his music uptempo and he’s rooting for Fame, made famous by Irene Cara, to win song of the year.  He’s just torn his ACL and his dreams for playing professional basketball are going up in smoke, and to make the evening even more miserable Christopher Cross with his soft rock sound of “Sailing” ends up winning in every major category. Christopher Cross even beats out Pink Floyd for album of the year.  What is the world coming to?

Later, leg elevated and packed in ice, he was taken to a local emergency room. Several other players came along and tried to lift his spirits before the doctor saw him, before the doctor told him that it was likely that more than his evening had ended. His anterior cruciate ligament, commonly called the ACL, had been ruptured quite badly, and he was absolutely out for the short remainder of his college basketball career. The coach was sympathetic enough, even though Alex suspected that the man was mainly relieved that it hadn’t been a sophomore or junior who had been injured.

The hospital staff settled him into a room, having insisted on keeping him overnight for observation. The last of his teammates left, not knowing what more to say. So as he waited for the new pain medication to kick in, he morosely watched Christopher Cross receive a Grammy for song of the year on the tiny television. Alex had nothing against the soft rock song “Sailing” that seemed to be sweeping up the awards that night, but frankly being in a sailboat wasn’t an image that moved Alex much. All that sitting still. He would much rather have seen Pink Floyd win best album. And for best song? He guessed he had been rooting for “Fame”. It was catchy. With a beat. The way Alex preferred music.

Did you really think that fame would make you live forever? He laughed at himself. Of course not. Alex thought about his hopes and dreams for playing some pro ball before he got older and had to move on to something boring but acceptable like coaching high school ball. The doctor had just counseled him that a lengthy program of rehabilitation would help him recover eventually and that surgery was of course possible. But Alex had to face the fact that there was no real excuse for devoting himself full time to his own recovery. With no professional team to pick up the expense, it wasn’t likely that he or his folks could justify all the money for the sort of surgery and rehab it would take to get him back to where he had been. He hadn’t been that good. And, even worse, he’d still be prone to knee injuries for the rest of his career. It just didn’t make sense.

So twenty-two-year-old Alex Zeitman lay with his sandy-colored head on a hospital pillow and sadly watched the end of the 1981 Grammy Awards as he let go of a dream. Crowds wouldn’t cheer as he flew down the basketball court, or be amazed as his sturdy, lightly freckled hands performed spectacular physical feats that would, maybe, have had people remembering his name, at least for a day. He would not play basketball for a living after all.

Check out this video to see why Alex was cheering on the song “Fame.”
You can purchase the music to Fame here.

The fact is that I started each of my novels off with a special song. Click to read about x0’s “Time After Time“, y1’s “A Whole New World“, c3’s “A Texas Kind of Way” and d4’s “Lights“.

Alex Zeitman is, of course, made up of a good bit of Sherrie Cronin, as are all my characters, the sympathetic and the less so.  My tastes in music run more towards stirring lyrics and less towards rhythm than Alex’s tastes do, but in February 2014 I was pretty sure that Alex would have joined me in cheering for Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”.  It’s a haunting two-sided song, yet it has that mesmerizing tempo that Alex loves. I was glad to see it win record of the year, and to know that in spite of Alex’s concerns thirty-two years ago, good music has hardly died!

None of live videos of “Somebody That I Used to Know” that I could find had very good audio. My favorite is this one of Gotye performing the song in Brussels in February 2012 along with guest vocals from Noemie Wolfs from the Belgian band Hooverphonic. Great fun.

My job is to get wiser

It has been just over three months now since I became unemployed. It’s a big deal for me, even though it was my own decision, made once I decided that if I made my life much simpler, I had enough to get by.

I knew that my job provided more discretionary income than I would ever have again.  I knew that it provided a social circle of sorts, and a reason to bathe regularly. I was prepared for a lack of all those things. I felt like I’d always had it in me to a be poor unwashed hermit, so no problem there.

I didn’t realize that my job provided reference points for the passage of time, and that after so many years with a typical job, I would be disorientated without those familiar markers. My husband, who made this same plunge three years ago, saw what was coming. Of course, for the past three years he had been using my work schedule to mark his own days.

“We will still have special meals on week-ends,” he declared. “Drink a bottle of wine, grill a nice piece of fish.” I laughed at him.  “We can do that any time now.”

“Yeah, but we won’t,” he said. “You’re going to need this.” He was right.

motion 2I didn’t realize that my job provided a sense of purpose, even if that purpose was only to pay the bills. I have a higher purpose, I thought.  My real purpose is to write. I didn’t consider how writing is basically a manic-depressive activity for me, filled with bursts of creativity and action interspersed with doubt and lethargy. One’s purpose needs to be solid, a guidepost that doesn’t wax and wane to a bipolar rhythm.

So I’ve kind of informally been seeking a purpose, and oddly enough I think I’ve found one. It probably was my purpose all along, I just didn’t think of it as such.

My job is to get wiser. I actually think that is everyone’s real job, but I also think it’s not my business to tell other people what their purpose is. So  …. I’ll stick to me. I’m on a mission to become a wise woman. I’m not sure exactly what the process involves, but I’m pretty sure that it includes a lot of writing, reading, helping others, being close to nature, taking good care of my self, traveling, learning, and meditating. It might involve a lot more.  I don’t know. I’ll find out.

I figure that a would-be wise woman takes wisdom wherever she finds it. So now my life is a classroom and, as a full time student, I make little notes to myself wherever I go. People in town may think I’m a little crazy.

A wonderful local yoga studio has provided me with lots of material, not to mention a few more reference points as I try to make it to my favorite classes. “We are naturally drawn to movement,” the instructor said the other day, talking about how all the flashing blinking lights in our lives hold us mesmerized. “But remember that there is no movement without stillness.”

motionIt sounded very Zen, but in fact the man was talking good solid physics. There is no motion if everything is in motion together. You do know that the earth is zipping around the sun at nearly 70,000 miles an hours, don’t you? You don’t? How could you possible not notice traveling at 70,000 miles an hour? It turns out it is pretty easy when everything else moves with you. Have one thing stand still (or as good old Einstein pointed out, assume you are standing still and the other thing is moving 70,000 miles an hour in the other direction) and the motion becomes apparent.

That’s it.  You need motion. You need stillness. You need reference points. Way to go, physics! Way to go, yoga! Way to go, universe!