Saturday, September 29, 2012

What's in that word?

Every year, researchers at Merriam-Webster pick about 100 words and phrases to add to the English dictionary. This year, the phrase 'aha moment'--made popular by Oprah Winfrey on her daytime talk show--was among the additions. This took me off guard a bit, but more importantly it got me thinking about the origin and development of the English language.

Now, you would think that, as a writer, a wheeler and dealer in words, Etymology would be part of my tool box, but the truth is that I had to look up the word to confirm the spelling (ashamed face). I realised that I have no idea how the English vocabulary has developed and how certain key words came into being.

With elections in the air, in the US, in Ghana and elsewhere, words like 'Freedom', 'Justice', and 'Independence', came to my mind as words describing concepts that make a difference in our lives. I tried to imagine the first time the word 'independent' was used.

I pictured a caveman crouching at the front of his cave watching a cave-woman walk away from him upright. Obviously exasperated, he remarks to another crouching caveman nearby.

"That woman so ...."

Caveman 1 searches for the right word and caveman 2 fills in "Independent?"

It turns out the first known use of the word 'independent' was between 1605 and 1650, so that scenario probably did not quite play out. It did however underscored the importance of a language that grows to encompass new concepts, attitudes and inventions. In Ghana, the local languages are littered with English words to describe recent developments like computers, email and mobile phones and so on. I may be wrong, but it seems that these languages are not adapting and growing and as a result may become obsolete and die.

The next time I'm searching for just the right word to create the image in my mind, I will probably give a quick thought to the person who included it into our everyday lingo.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ancient Grist for the Mill

About a thousand years ago, a series of earthquakes in the Andes shifted the course of the rivers that drained into the Pacific.  Along the coast, the great pyramids, from which the Moche lords watched over their irrigated fields, fell into ruin.  

No longer alongside the rivers, these palatial structures of the divine lords bore witness to a people losing their religion.  The age-old problem with divine kingship: if the weather kicks you in the teeth, how much of a god are you?  All-powerful and you can’t even bring in the crops?  One by one, as the fields dried up, these Moche kingdoms fell into ruin.

About five hundred years later, Spanish soldiers arrived, intent on redistributing the wealth of ancient Peru.  Armed with Toledo steel swords, Bibles, nearly-useless guns, and fighting dogs, they began the decades-long process of robbing a continent as they simultaneously went about converting the population to Christianity.  

Those old pyramids, ruins even then, were still powerful.  They’re still powerful today, drawing shamans and spiritualists by the thousands.  And the images on those pyramids, images of divinities unknown to the Spaniards, had never been forgotten.

About five hundred years later, I joined a team of archaeologists excavating one of these pyramids.  Like a three-day-old sand castle, it held some ruined sway over a swath of coastline.  Called El Brujo, the sorcerer, this pyramid was especially interesting because it was here that the Spanish built one of the first Christian churches in South America.

El Brujo - the ruins as they look today, with roof tents to keep the images safe from weather

So what was that like?  A few priests out here on the edge of the known world, the inquisition burning hotter than molten Toledo steel, what would it have been like to convert the natives?

El Brujo Pyramid after a thousand years of neglect, and a little excavation

Place on Pyramid We Were Pretty Sure We'd Find Something Really Interesting

Really Interesting Image We Found on the Pyramid - 

Not so hard, if you read their reports.  The archives are filled with storied accounts of effort, of sermon, of initial disbelief, and of eventual acceptance of this powerful new faith.  But that’s not the way it happened.  

A few priests, out here on the edge of the known world, would very likely have been scared nearly out of their minds.  Fail, and the inquisitors might cast an eye your way.  You don’t want that.  So you must not fail.  And if conversion means you turn a blind eye now and again when one of your new converts paints an image of an old god next to your old god, then you dare not cause a fuss.  

Aerial Image of the Ruins of the Church - as taken from my photo balloon

Over the course of our excavations, we found evidence that suggests that these priests, in order to get their job done, had to extend an extraordinary courtesy to their converts -- they allowed their own native religious imagery to sit alongside Christian imagery.  And that was not a decision they would have taken lightly.  If the inquisitors caught a whiff of that, these priests would have been burnt alive.

Moche Imagery found on the walls of the church - THOSE SAME SQUARES WITH DOTS!!!!!

We learn more about the past with each each shovel of dirt.  As as we learn more about it, we unearth more opportunities to illustrate our shared history by populating a corner of time and space with our fiction.  This is the moment in time I was exploring in my archaeological mystery AMERICAN CALIPHATE.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


A few days ago while discussing term papers, I was a bit surprised when a student informed me that she could paraphrase an entire article and submit it as long as she cited the source.  My response was a rather dry, “Really?”  She looked at me and quietly informed me that she’d done so all the time and had never received a lower grade than an A.  I just smiled but determined that any term paper that I assign would require multiple sources.

But that student got me thinking about the definition of plagiarism.  I looked up the definition in the Merriam Webster dictionary and by definition the student was right, to plagiarize is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own or use (another's production) without crediting the source.”  So as long as the source is credited, it’s not plagiarism.

As writers, we have to be constantly aware of plagiarism because the definition has relatively broad interpretation.  There is a thin line between inspiration and plagiarism, especially when it comes to ideas.  For each detective book I’ve read, I keep rereading the same scenes, same characters, just different names over and over again.  Is it formula writing or is it plagiarism?  Romance: story lines, ideas, characters, keep repeating themselves with every new romance.  Sometimes one books seem almost an exact replica of the other.  Plagiarism or inspiration?  How do we tell the difference?

In 1997 Janet Daily, a well known romance novelist admitted to plagiarizing Nora Roberts work in at least two books.  The books were pulled from the market, and Janet Daily settled a lawsuit.  More recently (2008) another well known romance writer, Cassie Edwards was accused of plagiarizing chunks of work without attributing the source.  When that happens, not only are these authors opened to lawsuits, but their original works become tainted as people question the originality.

At the same time I have written bits of fiction and after sending them to one of my trusted readers, they tell me they’d seen the story before, even directing me to the books.  The thing is, I had never read those stories.  Yet the overlap of ideas, similarities in characters and plots are similar to those books.  Is it plagiarism if I’ve never read the books, or just coincidence?  In other words, it is possible for a work to appear plagiarized, even if it is not.

Tonight I came across an online plagiarism checker.   I cut and paste chunks of this blog post into it and parts of it came up as possibly plagiarized.

So how can we avoid the possibility of accidentally plagiarizing another person’s work?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

To Read, or Not to Read?

The young daughter of a friend of mine told me the other day that she doesn't like to read.  We were chatting as we waited for my friend to finish what she was doing so we could head out to an event and when she said that I felt, well, gutted would be the word.  Her mom is a reader.  Her dad, too, though he mostly reads business books or political memoirs, that kind of thing.  So I told her all I thought she was missing.  I pointed out that some of those movies she loves so much like the Harry Potter series were books first.  I said that books will reveal much more of the world than she could possibly learn by just watching tv or even surfing the Net.  She responded, laughingly, that her mom had already told her all that but she just found reading boring.  Well!!!

I didn't know what more to say so I didn't say anything.  But, later, discussing it with her mom, we conceded the problem was bigger than Rhonda.  In fact, a couple of the high school English teachers I know, say that every year it seems like less and less children are reading at their age-level.  Worse, their ability to express themselves and to comprehend what they read also seems to be in decline.  One of the teachers has started a book club to help overcome this but they think the problem has reached epidemic proportions.  Of course, it's not just BVI children.  Educators on other islands and in the States, for example, have been complaining about this ever since the publication of the sensational Why Johnny Can't Read.  

For years, the Caribbean prided itself on being a highly-literate region with some of the best schools in the world.  The region's roster of writers include V. S. Naipaul, Samuel Selvon, Jamaica Kincaid, George Lamming and Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott, among others.  But, if fewer children are reading, where will future generations of Caribbean writers come from?

As a parent, I've tried to instill a love of reading in my daughter by getting rid of television, by discussing the stories she's reading with her, by asking her to come up with different endings for stories, and by making sure she has some of the best children's books in her library.  She will pick up a book and read it but she, increasingly, uses her Kindle to surf YouTube.  Can The Wind in the Willows compete with Beyonce, or even Alvin and the Chipmunks?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Cyberbullying & the ugly side of book reviews - Part 2

In Part 1 of this article I described my first experience of the cyber-bullying phenomenon and the development of a specialized form of cyber-bullying, the reviewer gang-bang. In Part 2 I will explore some of the abuses experienced by authors with whom I am acquainted, as well as author practices that help to exacerbate the growing hostility between some readers/reviewers and authors.
  • There are readers/reviewers who write 'reviews' of books they have obviously not read. The one-star review with the succinct "This book is trash" comment is typical of this group. These 'reviewers' tend to hide behind nicknames and profiles set to 'private'. Some of them post dozens, in one case, hundreds of reviews like this overnight, targeting specific authors. In the latter case, the reviews were taken down by the host, only to be reposted again and again by the 'reviewer'.
  • Some make personal attacks on authors, publicly or via inbox messages and e-mail, referencing their private lives, their jobs and family members. These are the "I know where your children go to school" posse. (I'm not kidding.)
  • Some of them are so persistent and well-known they have acquired nicknames among authors.
  • Some attack on behalf of authors they like, attempting to reduce the appeal of authors they perceive as competitors.
  • Some are out and out psychos, just tearing into certain authors for imagined transgressions. I was sceptical about the existence of this group but judging from some first-hand accounts, the crazies do exist and are not figments of authors' outsized imaginations.
No author deserves this kind of attention, and those who have experienced it are understandably upset. Authors, however, are not entirely blameless as a group. Some engage in practices that anger readers/reviewers and must shoulder at least some of the blame for the growing hostility toward them.

How do authors upset readers/reviewers? We're not referring here to the gang-banging reviewers who decide, for example, that they hate romance novels, think romance novelists deserve to die, and randomly trash books by these authors, but  ordinary folk who use the reviews to help them make informed buying choices. These people are just a tad upset by the rampant manipulation of the review tool by authors and the people they induce to help them accomplish this. 

I was a reader long before I was a published author, and the manipulation of reviews by authors and their enablers is a pet peeve of mine. I have become adept at spotting reviews that are less than genuine. Many users of review sites are. I know readers who no longer read reviews because they are so disgusted with it all. I'm tempted to join their ranks.

I'm not trying to commit some form of authorial hara-kiri here. I'm writing about this because the practice angers readers and some readers are not content to grumble; they fight back, and boy, do they fight dirty. I know one author who caused a fire-storm on account of his false reviews, dirty spamming tricks and outright lies about his books. The readers, reviewers, bloggers and discussion groups hit back so hard the author had to take down his books from the online stores and delete his websites.

There are many who believe the state of affairs regarding book reviews and cyber-bullying has gone too far and the sites need to be nuked and started over from scratch. Less extreme methods just might help to control the worst of the ugliness:
  • The depredations of gang-banging reviewers and certified psychos can be curtailed if review site owners create and enforce strict terms of service and terms of use
  • Authors can reduce the hostility all around by exercising restraint and ignoring negative feedback, as well as ceasing to manipulate their ratings by underhanded means.
I'm not holding my breath either way.

Liane Spicer

Monday, September 17, 2012

My Kid, the Writer?

My wife and I have made sure that our daughters always have books around. They’re everywhere in our house. Rather than gadgets or games, we encourage the girls to take a book or two along when we’re in the car, and we even keep a few extras in the back seat pockets. The message we’ve always tried to convey is that reading is an activity to be savored, which isn’t hard for me to do since it’s still my preferred method of relaxation. We do the reading at bedtime thing, of course, and now my firstborn is getting old enough where we’re starting to let her read back to us. So far, the strategy seems to be working. There’s nothing cooler than having your kids wander down the stairs and ask if you can take them to the bookstore.

Yeah. Because, what I need is another excuse to do that.

Both girls have been aware for a while that I write, and that it’s “my job,” and we’ve talked a bit about it here and there. Then, one evening a couple of years ago, my oldest daughter, all of four at that time, ventured into the bedroom where I was sitting and applying a red pen in manic fashion to a hard copy of the story I was polishing. She crawled in beside me to see what was so important that it was keeping her father from that game of Memory Match cards he’d promised. After a few moments of what passes for patient near-silence in someone of that age, my daughter offered this simple statement:

“Daddy? I want to write stories like you do.”

BOOM! Epic Dad Win, right there. The only thing which might beat this is if she’d said she wanted to watch the football game with me.

I asked her if she wanted to try writing a story, and she naturally said yes. So, I handed her the notepad I had laying nearby for scratching out notes and whatnot for the work I was doing, and said, “Go for it.” With utmost concentration, she set to work. Ten minutes later, she announced that she had finished her story, offering me the notepad with a big toothy grin of triumph, and asked me to read it.

Now, remember I said she was four at the time, so it’s not like I was expecting to see know...words or anything. What I got was three pages of indecipherable scribbling that looked like the output from an EKG machine shot-gunning Red Bull. Opting to keep the game going, I gave it back to her and asked her to “read” her story to me. Without batting an eye, she took the notepad and began spinning the mighty tale of a brave, dashing prince rescuing a beautiful princess from a fire-breathing dragon. And stormtroopers. And Klingons. And Tai Lung from Kung Fu Panda. The princess even got in on the beat-down action at one point, and I have to admit I was rather impressed with how the whole thing was hanging together as my daughter turned pages.

Of course, then I started considering other possible ramifications. For example: “Great. More competition.”

Despite my fear at being upstaged by someone barely two years out of diapers, I set aside my burgeoning jealousy and encouraged by eldest offspring to continue with her efforts. As time moved merrily along, I made sure she always had a journal or one of those composition notebooks if she wanted one, which she then proceeded to fill with page after page of what began as more of the same unreadable seismographic chaos. Soon enough, actual words began to show up, some misspelled or with the letters written backwards, and other tricks of the trade she’s picked up from me.

Recently, we were sitting together in the bleachers at her Taekwondo dojang, waiting for her class to start while watching her sister participate in an earlier class for younger students. As is my habit, I was carrying my trusty notebook with me—the one I use for scribbling story ideas, outline notes, and even rough drafts of scenes I write in longhand—and my daughter asked if she could write in it. By this point, she’d been learning to actually write in pre-school (and now Kindergarten), so when she presented me with a full page of “story,” this time I could read what she’d written. It was even recognizable as something resembling a Star Trek story, which isn’t unreasonable since she knows I’m working on a Star Trek novel. We’ve now got actual sentences—or reasonable facsimiles thereof—that almost more or less sort of tie together.

And now Daddy, the supposed writer in the family, is starting to sweat.

As has now become our little ritual, she reads her story to me, and I’m beginning to give serious consideration to hanging up my word processor and getting a job driving 18-wheelers, because she’ll have the writing thing handled. Nah, not really. What I’m actually starting to contemplate is a possible collaboration in years to come, and of course that thought makes me smile.

I wonder if she’s going to want top billing.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Guest author Sally Carpenter: Writing Press Releases That Get Noticed

Sally Carpenter 

Writing a book is only half the battle—now comes marketing your work. But media outlets are swamped with requests from authors seeking coverage. How do you make your press releases stand out from the crowd?

I work at a weekly community newspaper. After reviewing hundreds of press releases sent in by the public—some are well written but most are not—I compiled these suggestions to help writers get a leg up on publicity.

Go digital. 

The press kit with multiple pages, an 8-by-10 glossy author photo and numerous reviews packaged in a cardboard folder is obsolete. The modern newspaper does everything electronically. Media outlets don’t have a typing pool to retype paper documents by hand.

Your “press kit” should be a Word.doc. with author photo and book cover as jpg attachments. That way the staff can easily “copy and paste” your PR without retyping. The photos/graphics can be quickly downloaded into an electronic “folder” without taking time to scan print photos.

If the newspaper’s website has an online submission form, use it instead.

Keep it simple. 

  • Don’t send a PDF of a flyer loaded with graphics. The newspaper will not duplicate your flyer. A PDF that can’t be “copied and pasted” must be retyped. 
  • Some writers are so enthralled with computer graphics that they want to use every type of font and image. If your PR is hard to read it probably won’t be read.

Keep it short.

  • A local theater used to send me nine-page press releases for each play. Out of that material I only used a half-page of information. Another time an author send in a two-page, single-spaced summary of his book. After reading it I still had no idea what his novel was about.
  • Newspaper people don’t have time to wade through reams of data. The best length for a press notice is one page or less. Use the “elevator pitch” for your book. Summarize the plot in one brief paragraph. The idea is to tease the reader, not give away the whole story.
  • Keep the author bio to one paragraph as well. Don’t list every job you had or your hobbies or family members unless that has a bearing on the book (such as your spouse is a fire fighter and that inspired you to write a book about an arson investigator).
  • A newspaper won’t reprint long reviews. A one-sentence quote from one or two reviews is plenty.
  • Always include your website or email address at the end of your press release where the reader can go for more information.

Avoid puff.

  • Don’t load up your PR with adjectives on your book’s merits or brag about your talent. Don’t give a sob story on how your book had fifty rejections or required ten years to write.
  • Just introduce your book with facts. You can gush about your book at the launch party.

Forget the freebies. 

  • Don’t send a copy of your book and ask for a review. Most newspapers don’t do reviews and the ones that do only cover bestsellers. Most free books are simply given away to anyone in the newsroom.
  • You can state in your email that a book is available for review if desired. If they want it, they will ask for it.

Just the facts, ma’am. 

  • If you’re promoting a book signing or other event, be sure all the important information is listed: name of event, day and time, location with street address and city (never assume that the reader knows where the bookstore or library is located), admission cost if any, and phone number of the venue.
  • Triple check your data for completion and accuracy so you won’t need to later send in a correction (dealing with corrections is annoying).

Allow time for processing. 

  • Send in your press release at least two weeks in advance.

Stay off the phone.

  • Don’t call and ask if your material was received. Don’t ask when your notice will run. And especially don’t call and complain if your notice didn’t run. Media outlets are too busy to respond to every query. Multiple factors go into which articles are used. A rejection is nothing personal.

Happy writing and good luck!

Sally Carpenter is the author of the Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol mystery series. The first book, The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper (Oak Tree Press), was a 2012 Eureka! Award finalist for best first mystery novel. She’s hard at work writing the next book, The Sinister Sitcom Caper. Sally has a master's degree in theatre, a master’s degree in theology and a black belt in tae kwon do. She has been an actress, freelance writer, college writing instructor, theater critic, jail chaplain, and tour guide/page for a major movie studio. She is now employed at a community newspaper and is a member of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles chapter and “mom” to two black cats. Contact her at Facebook or

Friday, September 14, 2012

Why are you sitting on a great idea?

Writers are, by nature, creative people. We sit around daydreaming of plots, characters, heroes and villains. But, what happens if you think up a terrific marketing idea yet don't follow through?

Too much work? Okay, it might take some effort. Afraid it won't work? Can't know unless you try. Think people will reject it? Maybe. Or, maybe you'll break new ground.

Scenario: The blog over at my publishing house was lacking. Nobody seemed to be following. I posted a URL to my post on Novel Spaces and was told the idea was not to navigate readers away from our blog. The hope is that they would stay and buy books. (We do have good ones. I know because I acquisitioned them!)

I came up with the idea to do a round-up every Friday of all the places our authors showed up in a week. I supplied the URLs. Suddenly, a negative became a positive. Not only did our authors get to see what their peers were doing, but the publisher and I could tell who was slacking in the promotion department.

Taking the extra step is the one most people miss. Instead of letting the Round-Up sit there, waiting for attention, I promoted it to all my contacts. I pointed out that information on review sites, interviewers and blogs looking for bloggers was all there for the taking. For readers, free book offers, contests, fun articles.

Even the most enterprising marketer would stop there. I made it a point to contact every site owner and personally thank them for hosting one of our authors. Guess what? They want to support Oak Tree even more.

I can hear some of you saying, “Too much work!” But, the column writes itself. Oak Tree authors send me where and when their posts will come up, where their signings will be. I put it in the column. I've already got columns started into 2013. I keep a list of authors and their book titles as well as a list of e-mail addresses of sites that supported us. I guarantee they will host more of our folks in the future. Organizing information makes every round-up easier.

This is how a publishing house grows. This is how authors work together to market. This is the way we make the most of time and effort. This is how ideas become reality.

And, you better believe, this column is going to be mentioned in next Friday's Round-Up. Be sure and check at

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Story Inside

In my last post I wrote a little about readjusting to the fast paced life in the USA, but today, I am sitting on my back porch and enjoying (while it is still warm) a different side of my life here. Our house backs on to a forest which makes a lovely setting for my tea breaks. As you can see in the photo on the left, I often have company while I sit. It takes a bit of work to feel serene out here as we live near a major road and a school which, I am told, has an excellent band programme. As I sink into my time outside (the kids know not to disturb unless there is a blazing fire or gushing blood), I imagine that the sound of the passing cars is really the ocean rushing to the shore and the band practice, well, I just try to tune them out. (No pun intended).
I focus on the fantasy world that I know lives in the forest. You see, sometimes inspiration just comes you and sometimes you have to go looking for it. For example, there is a hole in a tree in 'my' forest. I know it's not a natural hole, an accident of nature; it must be an entrance way, a port hole into another world or another dimension of this world. The only question is are we meant to look in or are 'they' looking out at us?

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Historical Fiction

One of the greatest joys in writing fiction is creating new worlds, new characters, and new conflicts.  I can construct my own hinterland and populate it with heroes, villains, and sidekicks of my own composition.

But as a student of history and prehistory, I am fascinated by the past, so much so that I frequently wish I could live in another time and place.  The following would be among my favorites:

1014 - Dublin – so I could stand with High King Brian Boru as he unified Ireland and drove out the Vikings;

1521 - Mexico City – so I could warn the Aztecs not to trust the guy coming on the horse;

1936 - Lakehurst, New Jersey – so I could ride on the Hindenburg before it got into trouble;

535 BC - Bodh Gaya, India – so I could sit with Buddha under the Bodhi Tree and ask, “Hey, Buddha, what’s it all about?”

1575 - Algiers – so I could ransom Miguel de Cervantes from slavery in North Africa, in exchange for making me the author of Don Quixote;

410 - Rome – so I could march with my fellow Visigoths into the Eternal City for a comprehensive day of pillage;

1959 - Mason City, Iowa – so I could warn the Big Bopper not to get on the plane;

1628 - Stockholm – so I could watch the maiden voyage of the Vasa, the massive Swedish warship that sunk after sailing half a mile;

1986 - Redmond, Washington – so I could invest every damn dollar I could get my hands on in Microsoft;

1542 - Seville –so I could eat tapas and watch the comings and goings at the Council of the Indies.  This was the most important hub of transit, trade, and communication between Europe and the New World.  Decisions made here would impact the lives of millions on three continents.  A fly on the wall might catch of glimpse of Inca gold on its way to Spanish treasuries, conquistadors on their way home to the countryside, and the first potatoes to reach Europe.

The world was changing in 1542.  And nowhere was it changing faster than in Spain, where world views were expanding at an uncomfortable pace.  The world was evidently round, as the scholars had been schooling for over a millennium, but it was also a bigger world than anybody expected.  Empires in Mexico and Peru were lost as Spanish knights brought Toledo steel swords and typhus in exchange for mountains of gold, all of which passed through Seville.

Religions were changing too.  Now, being a good Spaniard meant being a good Christian.  And in a country with a substantial Muslim population, that proved a challenge.  It was illegal for Muslims to sail to the Americas, but it was also illegal to be a Muslim in Spain.  So who’s to say how many wealthy Muslim families decided to try their luck in the New World?  My guess is quite a few.

This was the time and place I wanted to explore, and I used it to anchor my archaeological mystery American Caliphate.  Tomas Ibanez, the patriarch of a powerful family of Spanish Moors, is growing weary of hiding his faith, and just as weary of paying bribes to corrupt officials.

Seven months ago, Ibanez had politely declined the Trade Minister’s request for an increase in his already-steep weekly remittance.  Authorities were notified and a charge made that Tomas Ibanez was a practicing Muslim, still making the prayers five times a day.  Heresy is punishable by death.

Ibanez held out his hands and looked down at the fingernails, now almost grown back.  He remembered the look on the Inquisitor’s face as he held up the forceps.  That hurt like nothing he had ever known and Ibanez swore his allegiance to the Crown, to the Lord Jesus, when he should have screamed that there is no God but Allah.  But naked, whipped, exposed, he could not.  “It is my nature to be skeptical,” the Inquisitor said, teasing a poker in the coals. 

Ibanez’s business acumen stronger than his faith, his Christian piety was demonstrated by the transfer of a small property in Marbella, and a brace of German carriage horses, assuring his eyes and genitals would not be harmed.

Wouldn’t you sail to Cuba or Mexico if you had money and ships and got pissed off enough?  I would, and I’m pretty certain hundreds of Moors felt the same way.  Colonial Peru is filled with hints and whispers of its colonial past, and half of those whispers could be heard back in Seville in 1542.

If you could travel anywhere in time, where and when would you go?  And what would you write about it?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Book Cover Design and You

A good book cover is like the smell of coffee, heady, seductive, intoxicating.  So, now that I've moved to self-publishing, choosing my own book covers is probably the thing I love the most.  It's not an easy process, though, so I'm going to share a little bit of what went on behind the cover of Jessamine (on the carousel to the right) and my tips on what I've learned so your own process can be a bit easier.

Several months before my publication date for Jessamine, I started looking around for book cover designers.  First, I googled book cover artists and then I checked out the blogs of some self-published authors like J. A. Konrath who have posted links to their designers.  Smashwords also provides a list of cover designers and their prices.  After looking over the portfolio of one designer, I got in touch with them and asked if they'd be interested in coming up with something for Jessamine.  She said 'yes' so I sent her the information.  I told her Jessamine was set in the Caribbean, that one of the main women in it was a ghost, that most of it took place in a Great House, etc. and then I sat back and waited, all excited.

A few weeks later, she sent me the cover (it's in PDF and isn't allowing me to cut and paste so I can't show it to you).  It was nice.  It had a lovely gold tone and I liked the title font and how my name and the title were set off from the picture.  Problem was the picture was basically of palm trees overlooking the roofs of a small town.   I thought the palm trees were a bit cliched and, as scenic as the cover was, it didn't really reveal anything about what the book is about.

I went browsing through Dreamstime and other photo sites, found a picture of a wooden staircase and foyer I liked, sent her the link and asked her to try again.  The staircase and the foyer definitely gave off the Great House vibe but when the cover came back, it was nice but, like something you might see in Architectural Digest - it didn't hint at the story inside. .

We parted ways amicably and I turned to another designer.  I sent the new designer basically the same information but this time I spent more hours on the photo site, looking up ghosts and I sent her the links to those as well.  Jessamine isn't a traditional ghost story, but there is a ghost and she is important and I wanted the cover to reflect that.  The first cover she sent was the one I eventually went with but before that happened I had a thought - perhaps we could make a visual allusion to the flower Jessamine in the cover -

So the above is what the designer sent.  Now I felt the cover was too busy and I went back to the original design which had what I thought were the important elements - the ghost and the old house.  A few people have said they expected a scary ghost story given the cover (Caspar notwithstanding, it's hard to find a friendly, or at least not scary-looking ghost) and I may order a new cover at some point but, for right now, I'm happy.

What did I learn:-

1.  Every single element cannot make it on the cover - keep it simple.

2.  Browse Amazon for book covers you like and try to analyze what it is precisely that you like - the font, the images, the feel, etc.

3.  Send your designer links to covers of books similar to yours which you like.

4.  If you don't like a cover, don't be afraid to reject it.

5.  There are a lot of cover designers out there - do your research, make sure they offer covers in the formats you need them in and that they do spine and back covers if you're planning to offer print editions.

6.  Be clear about how many times you can go over the cover with the designer.  Will your designer work with you until you're satisfied?  Will they charge more if they have to do four drafts?  Be clear on the parameters.

7.  You can get good designs for anywhere from $50 to about $150.  I don't see any need to pay more than that unless you just really want to.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Favorite Book-to-Film Adaptation

I read a recent article written by literary agent Kate McKean (Article - Fiction and Movies) about what fiction writers can learn from movies in terms of plot, high stakes, and characterization, i.e. characters who want something, and how important it is to fall in love with characters, even if they wreak havoc - they need to be somehow charming, mean yet fragile, and most of all, unforgettable.

I began to think about which movies I've learned the most from, and realized that the reason Terms of Endearment (1983) has been my favorite movie of all time is because it covers all of bases as far as character development, plot, stakes, etc., and it just so happens to be a movie adapted from the book of the same name, written by Larry McMurtry in 1975.

In the movie, Shirley MacLaine played Aurora; edgy and guarded, yet loving and vulnerable - Debra Winger played Emma; fast-talking, looking for love like her mom, yet at odds with her mom; close to her in some ways, yet still a world away as far as emotions - and Jack Nicholson who played Garrett; the playboy, smooth, detached, funny, who in the end, became loving and attached, even to Aurora's kids and grandkids. I cry every time Emma speaks to her kids from her death-bed. It breaks my heart for them (because of her odd-way of wanting to keep it simple), yet it also touches my soul (for the same reason) for her.

This movie was touching, tragic, funny, surprising, and risky. It has been in the #1 spot in my heart since its release (#2 being Turning Point in1977 and #3 being Waiting to Exhale in 995). I remember telling my husband that I didn't want Terms of Endearment to end - and so, he took me to see it again.

It's my hope that this type of writing, an adherence to the craft and to the rules that literary agent Kate McKean spoke of, will cause some readers to "not want my books to end" either. Even though this was an adaptation, I salute Larry McMurtry for creating such a wonderful story.

Authors - what is your favorite book-to-film adaptation? And please offer a few words as to why. Thanks!

Write on! See you again on October 5th!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Bend and Stretch

Even as I work my way through Seminar on Narrative Nonfiction on my journey to MFA-hood, I've been spending an hour or so each week on exercises from one of my Seminar on Fiction texts. No, these are not homework assignments I need to make up. They're practice.

One of our weekly tasks in Seminar on Fiction was to complete an exercise of our choice from The 3 AM Epiphany by Brian Kiteley, a collection of 201 writing exercises. We would then present the result for class review, along with any explanation of our process we thought necessary. Typical exercises included "Write a 500-word story fragment without using the letter e." or "Write a conversation in which no words are said. Describe the conversation as observed by a stranger; do not show what the characters are thinking." or "Write an uncensored sex scene. Use the names of kitchen or food items for all of the nouns and steps in the cooking process for all of the verbs."

I really disliked doing these. For one thing, I'm a writer – which means I really want to be in control, making the writing decisions, knowing how things turn out in advance. I can write to editor specs, no problem, but being told what to write at this level annoyed me mightily. (Fortunately, I go over myself and managed to work my way through the class successfully.) For another thing, some of Kiteley's exercises were hard. Or worse, made no sense – the activity didn't seem to have anything to do with the stated objective. The first week I chose a gimme: "Describe an exotic fictional locale." I write science fiction, this I do in my sleep. Five hundred words in twenty minutes; instant A. By the second week it occurred to me that if I was going to get my money's worth out of the course I was going to have to stretch and push myself. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't happy to put that book on the shelf for the last time when the course was over.

Deciding which exercise I was going to do each week had necessitated reading several and making a choice. Against my will I found myself thinking about those exercises I'd looked at but hadn't tried. I also started noticing points in my own writing where I used skills addressed in the exercises. It took me longer than I'd like to admit to remember something I'd learned nearly a decade ago:
A concert pianist practices twenty or thirty hours for every hour she's on stage. That's after she's completed years of lessons and practice to master her craft well enough to be on stage in the first place. A champion athlete trains long and hard to prepare herself for an event that may last seconds. Everyone expects this of them, the athlete and pianist expect it of themselves. No one expects to succeed – or get paid – for their first effort. Except writers. Writing is a craft and a skill that requires constant work, constant practice to maintain.
I took the book back down off the shelf.

In the past I've written about reading like a writer: analyzing a work you admire – a scene that stuck with you, a character you can't forget – to see how the writer pulled it off. Keep doing that. But beyond that we as writers need to work constantly at our craft. Learn new skills or sharpen existing ones. It's work. I do not enjoy most of Kiteley's exercises. I hate more than a few. But I'm working my way through the book, tackling each one in turn. Because I'm never going to know all there is to know about being a writer. All I can do is what I should do: learn – and practice – everything I can.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Go Boldly Where No Writer Has Gone Before


Okay, so a lot of writers are going forth into the “Indie Frontier”, but my message is still the same as the title of this post. Be bold, and be smart. Notice the Enterprise crew had loads of specialists and did their homework before they went boldly. Like I said, smart.

You know how we always say, “Just when I thought I’d heard it all”? Well, I read a blog post by Dean W. Smith about authors actually giving cover artists 15% of their sales forever in exchange for a cover. Picture me slapping my forehead and crying out, “Huh? A cover artist???” Seriously folks, there is no need to give anyone a cut of your indie sales. No. Reason.  If you don’t know where to start ask me. I only bite on Mondays.

Maybe I should have titled this post “Fear”. That’s a common theme I hear from traditionally published authors when I talk about indie publishing. Fear of technology; fear of having to learn a new set of skills; even fear of talking to other writers and looking stupid because of what they don’t about this new publishing landscape.

I understand to some extent. Traditionally published authors are used to writing the book, handing it to a publisher and everything is done (cover, blurbs, proofreading,etc.) One writer who wants to sell her first book said, “I want to get a traditional deal, because I don’t want to mess with all that stuff. I just want to write.”

Even if writers only want to go the traditional route, please know you must handle your business. Especially learn about contract clauses and what they mean, and how to read royalty statements. Otherwise you’re saying, “I’m closing my eyes and signing because I trust you guys.” As I told one writer, that’s like handing a stranger a set of keys to your house, your credit cards and check card and saying, “Here you go; handle all this for me. I just want to write.” Would you do that?

 People are standing by to profit from this fear of indie publishing. I’ve heard of writers spending thousands to pay for things you can do for free; paying big bucks for cover designs. I paid $40 for my first indie cover. Does it look professional?


Network with writers who are indie publishing. Be like Captain Kirk and crew; be bold, but do your homework. So far I’ve indie published thirteen books and two boxed sets. I had zero clues when I started – had to ask “What’s a mobi? Epub, what’s that?”

What are your fears about indie publishing? I’ll be glad to share what I know.