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.)

Picking a President: “Holding Out for a Hero”

So I am adding to the music page on this blog, and come to “Holding out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler and suddenly current events sort of click for me. I confess that watching this presidential primary process has left me disturbed like never before. What does an 80’s song have to do this? Walk with me here, because I think I’m on to something.

superheroWhy is the protagonist in a novel, or movie, or TV series usually called the hero of the story? We love our heroes (male and female) because we not only love to cheer them on, we also live through them vicariously. In fact, we are so used to being entertained by heroes that I think we’ve evolved into a society where many of us don’t want our politicians to be leaders.  We certainly don’t want them to be politicians. We want them to be our heroes, and that’s a different thing.

Some politicians thought to have a good shot at the presidency are having a hard time fitting the hero image. Hilary Clinton, Mark Rubio and John Kasich are all struggling with it, and Jeb Bush failed at it along with eleven other GOP hopefuls.

On the other hand, Bernie Sanders has risen as a hero to the left. It’s fair to tell you that I like a lot of Bernie Sanders ideas and if he wins the primary I will vote for him, even though I do not think he would be particularly good at the business of governing these United States. My point here is that I don’t think his followers are focusing on his abilities as a statesman. He is a hero to them for speaking out against the injustice in our nation.

fractal 6On the other side of the aisle are an array of heroes to chose from. Does your hatred of the federal government run so strong that you cheer on a man willing to shut the entire government down if he doesn’t get his way? Have we got a candidate for you. Fancy a quiet neurosurgeon whose medical feats don’t qualify him for politics but sure are impressive? Step this way. Or is your idea of a hero someone who is wildly rich, terribly confident and never backs down? Ohhhh boy, you are going to love what we have for you.

I’m afraid that as a nation were not looking for the most capable leader we can find. We’re each looking for our own particular kind of hero out there. We want someone we can rally behind and yell “hell yes”, the country be damned. It makes sense in a very visceral way, even though I don’t think this is what the founding fathers had in mind for democracy. However, as our society has become ever more entertainment-saturated, this might have been inevitable.

I think it would be a good idea to be more aware of what we are doing, and to ask whether heroes have historically made good leaders. What do you think?

While you ponder that question, enjoy this 1984 video of a young Bonnie Tyler and her 80’s hair as she sings “Holding out for a Hero.”

(Learn more at bonnietyler.com/. You can buy this song at Amazon.)

z2 is a story about becoming a hero when necessary. Enjoy this short excerpt about one of the moments when my protagonist has to act like a hero. And no, I do not think that being able to handle a situation like this qualifies one to be president.

“It’s probably just the cat,” he muttered, mostly asleep.

“It’s NOT the cat!” she said. “It’s coming from the front lawn.” Lola stepped into the hallway and could see a bright glow coming in through the front windows. “Oh my god, Alex.”

Alex could recognize genuine panic when he heard it and he went from barely awake to completely awake in about two seconds. This was his job. He protected this house. He strode into the front hall and saw through the glass panels on either side of his front door an angry and probably drunk mob of white hooded people on his front lawn, most waving burning torches and chanting something about his house, shelter and Satan.

“Call 911,” he barked to Lola, heading back to the bedroom to grab some pants. “Then see if you can make it out the back door and get to a neighbor. Bring back some help if you can. I’m going out there to see what they want.”

It was an indication of how serious the situation was that Lola didn’t even pause to discuss his plan with him.

He opened the door, and saw that a cross about the size of a grown man had been erected on his front lawn and was being doused in liquid from a metal can. As he opened his mouth to speak, the crowd noticed him, and the chanting was replaced by a plethora of epitaphs.

 

Bring back the good old days?

I get a lot of ideas for blog posts while I’m doing yoga. Some would say it is because my brain relaxes and stops talking. Others might guess that I’m lucky enough to have uncommonly profound yoga instructors. Normally I’d go with both of the above, but not today. This post comes from my mind’s refusing to agree to do what it was told.

The pastToday, I was instructed to be totally present in the now. This is a common prompt in a yoga class, but the problem started when we were asked to reflect on what kept us from being so. “I know, I know” the eager student in my head clamored.  She likes getting answers right. “I replay scenes from the past, and I concentrate on tasks and I worry about the future.” But another voice in my head spoke up, and it was less anxious to please.

“No,” it corrected. “For starters, you are not just replaying scenes in your head, you are spending time processing what has happened. Processing is not a bad thing. You do “after action reviews”, just like the military. You try to learn from your past mistakes, like every historian says we need to do. Replaying events in order to be wiser in the present is a valuable activity.”

Hmmmmm …. It looked like a rebellious section of my monkey mind was staging a coup. I managed to hush it for the duration of the class, but I picked up the train of thought as I drove home.

It was true. My sincere contrition for poor behavior is seldom spontaneous.  It often comes after a hard look at the past, hopefully the very recent one. My gratitude is often the fruit of this inter-cranial after action review process, as is my forgiveness, and my recognition of a job well done by myself or others. Monkey mind had a point. I would not want to live in a world where I didn’t review the past and grow. Some of my best behavior comes from that.

So what was the problem? Well, there is such a thing as an unhealthy obsession with what has occurred. Each of us has a thing or two we’ve spent far too much time reviewing. Often we are still angry with someone, or still trying to justify our own less than stellar actions. I know that I spend time there. Let’s face it. There is “learn from” and there is “fixate on” and they are two different things.

We also can hide in a glorified past, afraid of change and not wanting the future to bring that which we don’t understand. But it will, it always will bring it.

growing bolder 9I think that society has the same dilemma. Certain periods fascinate us beyond all reason. Too often we use historic events to perpetuate hatred and prejudice, not to grow and be better. And there is this insane obsession with returning our country, or our religion, or culture or world to some “good old days” of the past. Forget that those days were never as good as the hype. The real problem is that those days are gone, they are always gone. You cannot recreate them. You can make a better future and use some of the best ideas of the past to do so, but the obsession with making things just like they once were is only a way to waste your precious present.

I was sort of warming to this meld of ideas when my monkey mind, which is very good at digging up facts, reminded me of something. I suspect that every author has a scene or two in each book that they consider their favorites.  I know I do. This one from z2 takes place after Kisa discovers that Kyle is of a nationality that she has always despised. My yoga mind and monkey mind both reread it together and the good news is that they now agree. We do all need to learn from the past, and then we need to let it go.

Kyle asked more seriously. “Kisa, what do you think is a reasonable time limit for hate?”

“I don’t believe in hate.”

“No one does, but we all do. If someone kills my kin, hurts my friends, ruins my life, I may be able to forgive and move on. But if a large group of people does such a thing? Then I almost certainly don’t. I call my hatred lots of things. Justified anger. Revenge. Forcing this group to behave better. Even self-defense. But for how long do I get to punish all the people associated with or descended from those who caused the harm?”

“In parts of the world feuds are centuries old,” she remarked, “with a staggering list of injustice and cruelty on both sides. Once it gets to that point, forgiveness or even just acceptance between two groups seems impossible.”

“That’s what I mean. And each fresh insult keeps the fire going. To stop hating appears to dishonor the sacrifices made by those who came before. Who wants to let their ancestors down?”

“So we keep it going and let our children down instead, as we let the circle grow ever wider,” Kisa said. “Immediate blood relatives of the perpetrators? Those who look like them? Pray like them? Dress like them? Anyone who shares a city, or a nation, or a continent with them?”

“Exactly. In other words, how would you like to let one Spaniard who thinks that the burning of Tayasal was an abomination buy you dinner and start over?”

“I’d love that.” She thought a second. “Do you know who said ‘Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind’?”

Kyle shook his head. “Gandhi? John Lennon?”

Kisa laughed. “Good guesses. Albert Einstein.” Her anger and even embarrassment at not recognizing Kyle’s heritage was gone. “I think that it’s a good time for you and me to grow up.”

(As for what my monkey mind had to say about my never ending focus on performing tasks — see my post Frittering life away? on my c3 blog. For thoughts about focusing on the future, see Prepare for the Worst? on my d4 blog. And find out what my yoga instructor thought the problem was at Are you performing, or performing? on my y1 blog.)

 

 

 

“Only the Strong Survive”

61DxiskibfL._SL500_AA280_When Jerry Butler first sang “Only the Strong Survive” in 1968, he was talking about a man with a broken heart learning to pick himself up and move on. The message resonated as his hit reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, with eventual versions by Elvis Presley, the Dutch group The Trammps, and even an eight minute club mix produced by Frankie Knuckles.

tatooThe title was used for an album compilation of soul music, a 2002 documentary on soul music, and it has inspired a wealth of quotes, t-shirts and tattoos. No wonder. The phrase itself goes well beyond recovering from a devastating love affair as it touches on each of our need to find inner strength to overcome whatever life throws at us.

Alex, the hero of z2, has a fondness for oldies. He is a strong man in the classic sense of being big and athletic. But he is also wiser than most, and he knows that true strength comes in many types of packages. As he gets to know the new transfer student named Xuha (pronounced “schwa”) he recognizes that along with the boy’s unusually short stature is a strength that is both physical and mental. Read the excerpt below to understand why Alex hears the Jerry Butler hit from 1968 in his head as he hits tennis balls with Xuha.

“Your real parents?” he asked hesitantly.

“Never knew my dad,” Xuha shook his head. “But I’m told he was not only there when I was born, but he delivered me.” To Alex’s surprised look he added, “I was an emergency birth in a car. Not my style to come into this world in a normal fashion, huh?” Alex could see the raw emotion behind the bravado.

“You knew your mother?” he asked gently.

“Oh yes. She came to the United States because my grandfather was here for cancer treatments. They were from Mexico City. Nice established family. Had some money, at least before my grandfather got ill. The treatments didn’t help and my grandfather died here in Houston hours after I was born. I’m told I was rushed to his deathbed. His first, his only, grandchild. He cried when he saw me and then he died.” Xuha laughed. “How’s that for a start in life?”

“You knew your grandmother then?”

“She raised me until I was almost six. Sort of.”

“Sort of?” Alex asked. He hoped he wasn’t treading too far into personal ground.

“Well, she never was very strong after my grandfather died. Sad. Sick a lot. Always crying. Lot of crying in my history, huh? But she wouldn’t go back to Mexico right away because they buried my grandfather here and she wanted to spend time by his grave. I’m told that my mother agreed to stay with her until she was done grieving, and my grandmother kept promising that she’d be ready to go in just a month or two more but she never was.”

“Your dad didn’t stay too?”

“He couldn’t. He had to get back to work. My grandmother told me that he got angry with my mother when she didn’t come home after a while and my parents fought on the phone and then my mom got hit by a car.”

“No.”

“Yes. Buella said I was three, three and a half. I don’t remember my mother. But after she died all my grandmother did was cry every day and night and I do remember all those tears. She blamed herself for everything. I used to heat canned things up for dinner and try to get her to eat. I guess I was almost six when she died. Just died in her bed.”

Alex looked at Xuha and watched the boy make a clown’s sad face that mocked his own sorrow. “Then I was the one who cried. I thought it was my fault that she died, you see. That if I’d known how to cook she’d have eaten and gotten strong and gotten out of bed and then fed us both.” He added a comic eye roll. “A child’s logic, huh? If I could have cooked better I’d have had someone to feed me.” Alex didn’t laugh.

“Your foster mother found you then?”

calm“Yeah. She was a neighbor, and according to her she was kind of keeping an eye on me already. Newly married, really pregnant with her first child. When Buella died she and her husband took me in and fed me and never fought once about my being there. They raised and treated me like their own, as best they could. Most of what I know about my real parents comes from things my grandmother said, but she told Maria, my foster mom, the same stories. So I believe them.”

“Wow Xuha.” Alex wasn’t sure what else to say when an odd question occurred to him. “So you were born in the U.S.? You’re a citizen?”

“I think so. I have a birth certificate. From the hospital in Houston where my grandfather died.”

“Where does it say you were born?”

“In route to hospital.”

”Well that should count,” Alex mused.

“Why do you ask?” Xuha seemed a little defensive now.

“Oh, it’s nothing. I guess because I am helping out some friends of my son. There are some complicated nationality and immigration issues involved and he knows that I’ve dealt with some of this before. So it was on my mind. It just seems that you’ve had enough trouble in your young life, and for some reason the animosity towards undocumented immigrants has grown exponentially in our region over the last couple of years. It’s pretty sad. I’m just glad to know that you’re okay in that regard.”

Xuha didn’t say anything for several seconds. Alex took the cue and sipped his own tea in silence.

“I don’t think that Maria and Diego have the same luxury,” Xuha said finally.

“No, I was guessing that they didn’t. Let’s keep that between us. Your foster parents sound like wonderful people working very hard to raise a family and do what’s right. I’d hate to see any trouble come their way.”

As Alex and Xuha made their way back onto the court to finish their workout, Alex couldn’t help but notice the song that was playing in his head. Without thinking about it, he was hitting tennis balls to the rhythm of the Motown hit “Only the Strong Survive”.

Check out this video. It will have you swaying in your chair, humming along and feeling just a little stronger yourself. If interested, you can purchase the song at Amazon.com.

And remember …..

fast

With the second song of each book, I pick up on the intensity of the theme a little more. Click on to read about x0’s “We are the World“, y1’s “Party Like it’s 1999“, c3’s “Heads Carolina” and d4’s “I Follow Rivers“.