Learning Curve – Covering Up, Part One (and a Half)

Richard Skinner

Okay, this post is way late. As evidenced by the fact that I just changed the date for it in my document from “July ??” to “August 4.” Well, the same year, at least… I did have all of the notes done for it last month, but just could not work my way around to getting it done. (Actually, I have a whole bunch of notes, and the pictures, for an “appendix post” that I’ll be doing after this series is finished – “Covers, Through the Ages and Around the World.”)

In any case, this is the post where I rip my own covers (all two of them) up for your enjoyment and hopefully your edumacation. There are problems with just about all of the rules laid out by my “mentors” in their blog posts – please see Part One of this series for the links to them. The more “technical” issues involve the principles laid out by Cedar Sanderson in her Art of Design posts, though, so I’ve repeated the links to those two here, as you might want to have them open side-by-side with this one:

The Art of Design

The Art of Design, Part II

So, on to the covers, which you can see below. (Yes, those are clickable links to Amazon. No pressure here… At some time in the future, though, I’ll be writing about marketing, and how you never pass up a proper opportunity to do it.)

Tales By The Road The Simple Man and The Lass

The first rule of cover design: Signal! Signal, signal, signal! Whatever categories your work ends up in on Amazon, even if they are exactly right (for getting them right, go read Dorothy Grant, aka “fynbospress”) – if your cover does not signal the same category, the browsing customer will not click on it. I can virtually guarantee that.

So, what are the signaling issues here on the Tales covers? Well, they are rather vague. Wishy-washy. Actually, the Simple Man and the Lass cover is the worse of the two for accomplishing the objective. But even Tales By The Road really doesn’t cut it, although it has The Road, a lifeless sandy desert, and a huge red sun. Yes, it feels “science fictional,” but not exclusively so – it could be something like one of the hugely depressing psychological pieces, with a title like “Road To Nowhere.” Okay, maybe I’m just being hard on myself, but that is what I see here.

The Simple Man and the Lass is worse, as I’ve already noted. It really gives no clue that it has anything to do with either science fiction or fantasy – it could be a travel guide, a back-to-nature piece, almost anything. Okay, it does fit with the “pastoral” keyword I hung on it, but that’s about it (and that keyword did very little for Amazon search engine hits, believe me – it’s drowned out entirely by religious-themed items).

Now, assuming you get an even halfway decent basic “look” for a series of stories or novels, you probably won’t hit the problems that I’m having here. Which is that the Tales are going to be all over the map so far as “genre” goes. Yes, they are all science fiction / fantasy; the common thread of a sentient road telepathically telling its stories to a far-future human makes them that. But they are also going to be very different from each other beyond that starting point. The Simple Man and the Lass is a “pastoral light romance.” The next one, Fugitive, is firmly set in the “historic military combat” slot. After that comes a “social problems” piece, a “horror” story, a “Christmas story” piece, even a “murder mystery / police procedural” bit. No, I really don’t know how I got myself into this mess, but I blame the Muse…

Second rule: Stand out! Now, this is not such an easy thing to accomplish, at least in the current “cycle” of cover design. For a while, some years back, you could manage it with a cover of screaming yellow, or fire engine red. Right up until everyone began doing the same thing. Yes, the human eye is attracted more to bright colors, but that is not enough. Because the human eye is far more attracted to the visually different thing – a genetic legacy from the days when seeing the “different” was pretty much associated with whether we were the eaters – or the eaten.

The only advice I can give you – and remember that this is from a newbie – is to open up Amazon and start searching with the keywords you have selected for your work. Plus those that you think Amazon will pick from your blurb. What?! The keywords and the blurb have to be done before the cover? Yep. See here, and here, and here (Sarah’s second point on that last). How will you know whether a prospective cover design will stand out unless you are comparing it to the environment in which its going to be seen? A tip here: add a search by length too. For the Tales, I add “short” and “novelette” to the terms – those pretty much drop me into the “one hour or less” categories. Many people are looking for a quick read on their commute or during lunch break, while others are trying to find something for a weekend read.

For my own research, I copy the cover images I find into a temporary Word document for easy reference. (Mostly right now because the “short” category is largely populated with page after page of the “reading guides,” which don’t have real covers.) Then I start comparing them with my rough sketch. Another tip: when I have put together the really rough cover, I sweet-talk the family into coming in and doing the same comparison. It is all too easy to fall in love with “your” baby and not realize that the poor thing really looks just like everyone else’s kid. (Mothers reading this – yes, I know you have always been able to tell your child from a thousand others. Nobody else in the world can, including Dad, which is why babies get their ID bracelet before they’re allowed even ten feet away from you.)

Okay, how do my two covers stack up? Well, so-so. The “banded” design does, but that choice was a sub-optimal one (although mostly necessary). Yes, when and if the Tales acquire a fan base, they will be easy to find, which is a plus. But the new reader is barely going to notice the style. Otherwise, Tales By The Road has a decent color contrast, with the reddish elements against the black sky; that helps. The Simple Man and the Lass though, does not have this advantage – and there are a lot of other “greenish” and “country” covers in the Amazonian wilds.

Third rule: Give the right first impression! This is related to signaling the genre, and the category – but at a lower level. The level where the reader is making the decision about whether to click on your cover for more information. Amazon does its best to slot your work into the right places for the search engine, but they will never quite get it right. Between newbies like me using the wrong keyword (see above for how “pastoral” worked out for me), and writers that are deliberately gaming the system to get their works visibility in places where they honestly do not belong (see Sarah Hoyt’s rant), a typical search is going to turn up a lot of results that have absolutely no similarity to your offering. This is when your cover needs to say “Yes, this really is something you are looking for. Click with confidence!”

On this count – well, let’s say I’m not happy at all. Tales By The Road does look like its genre. But what is conveyed to the reader (in my honest opinion) is something that is not in the story – a feeling like it is an “end of the line” piece. Everyone is gone, the world is dead, don’t read if you are feeling at all depressed… Now, there is a bit of that element in the story, but that is certainly not the central theme. (Short critique mode here – the story is slow, it does lack any action – but it is, I hope, not depressive in tone.)

For The Simple Man and the Lass, well, the less said the better… About all that this cover tells someone is that the story is set in the countryside. Which is accurate, but not particularly helpful to someone paging through their search results.

Fourth rule: Branding! You might think that this rule applies only to series, which it definitely does – but it also applies to your brand. You, the writer. If you are reading this post to learn something about creating your own covers, you are obviously the publishing company too. (And the marketing department, and the bookkeeper, and the secretary, and the bottle-washer-in-chief…)

Your covers should at least be similar enough to identify them as all being part of your “product line.” Whether they are stand-alone or part of a series. I use “product line” quite deliberately here, too – you may have, almost certainly will have several of them. Maybe under different pen names, like “Sybly Whyte,” or under one name, but in several different genres. Each of your lines can have a different look, and it is probably a good idea to make sure that they do. (Beyond the obvious differences due to the other rules.)

My two covers, and the ones that are in the works yet, do at least manage to convey the Tales By The Road brand – and also the “Sybly Whyte” brand. If Sybly ever writes something that is not a Tale, I may run into some difficulties, however.

Next up are two of the “technical” rules If you still haven’t read Cedar’s posts on these, please do so now.

Technical rule one: Align the elements of your cover design. Elements that are not aligned – either with their edges along a common line (vertical and/or horizontal), or through their centers, give the viewer a “cognitive break”; i.e., their understanding of the whole composition does not flow smoothly.

This is only the first alignment principle, though, and the easiest to understand. There are two more:

The second alignment principle is the rule of thirds. To me, this should really be called the “rule of ninths,” but I have to go with the label of the experts, here. The basic notion here is that you do not place the most important element (the one that you want the viewer’s eye attracted to first) in the center of the picture – either vertically or horizontally. For various psychological reasons, the eye is attracted more to something that is not at the “main focus” – it will naturally drift to an object that is either to the left or the right, or (less so) above or below the dead center of an image. (Note, here, an image. It is better to align your text along the center line, or the left edge; very rarely, the right edge.) Cedar explains this more fully in her post (Part II) – but for an even more detailed explanation, and even more technical one, see Poster Composition and Layout. There are a lot of similarities between poster design and book cover design. (Hat tip to Dorothy Grant, here.)

Quickly here, let’s chop the two covers into rule of thirds grids:

Tales By The Road Cover - Rule of Thirds The Simple Man and The Lass Cover - Rule of Thirds

Do you see the problems here? Nothing in the pictures is really aligned along the “thirds” lines. In Tales By The Road, the road is way over on the right hand edge – and in the middle third of the cover, it is in competition with the Sun. It does not receive the emphasis that it should. Even worse is The Simple Man and the Lass, with the road in the horizontal center of the page. Meh.

One thing that is pretty close to right, though you have to read the poster composition article – the horizons on the images are where they should be. Yay! Also notice that the title is completely above the upper line in both cases, which is also a goodness thing. (The Simple Man and the Lass has a problem with the size and arrangement of the title and subtitle – but typography layout is for a later post.)

Now, the same covers, but divided into quarters – to make the “Gutenberg Diagram” for them. Sorry, this post is already incredibly late, so I didn’t add the arrows to it. Please see Cedar’s Part II post, but the basic idea is that people look at an image pretty much like they read (in the West, anyway) – from left to right on the top half, then from left to right on the bottom half. The top half quadrants are the “stronger” part of the image, meaning that they make or break that first impression, and “color” the impression of the bottom half. The right part of the bottom half is also more important – that’s where the “parting impression” is made, assuming the viewer does scan the entire cover.

Tales By The Road Cover - Gutenberg Diagram The Simple Man and The Lass Cover - Gutenberg Diagram

Again, the titles are in the right places – but the primary parts of the images really aren’t. Now, everything obviously cannot go into the “Primary Optical Area” and the “Strong Fallow Area” (using the diagram terminology – the upper left and upper right quadrants in non-psych-researcher speak). But both roads should be in the “Terminal Area,” or the bottom right quadrant. Not just the one on Tales By The Road.

Technical rule two: “Propositional denseness.” Okay, fancy, fancy words. Lotsa syllables… What does this mean? Simply put, it is the principle of packing as much information about what is inside the book into the outside of it – i.e., the cover. Essentially, Rules One and Three from above. Now, that does not mean just the image, but that is a big part of it. It also includes any snippets of reviews that you use. For printed books, it includes the blurb and review snippets on the back of a paperback, or (if you are wildly successful and start publishing hard covers) on the flyleaves.

The Simple Man and the Lass is again a “meh” in this respect. The only “proposition” it gives is that the story takes place out in the boondocks, not the big city, not a small town, not the highway junction with a greasy spoon, a bar, and a gas station… Tales By The Road does much better – a lonely road in a lifeless desert on a planet about to die. Although the information that this is actually a road on the Earth would be clearer if it had the human figures in it that I wanted and foolishly thought that I could accomplish with my meagre skill set. Which leads into another rule (yes, the last one, for this post anyway). One that I realized all on my lonesome, although I am quite positive that somebody has covered it on Mad Genius Club, I just can’t find the post or posts.

The “Dynamic” Rule: Take a look at the top 100 sellers in your category (yes, everybody tells you that). Well, taking a look at my category (15-Minute Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Reads – where, yay! At the moment I write this I’m #146!). All right, throw out the “Reading Order” lists (if it weren’t for those…). Also the ones that absolutely should not be showing up here – uh, the first four books of A Game of Thrones? Now, I’m a fast reader, but… (This is me, manfully resisting the urge to comment on whether they are worth even fifteen minutes…)

Anyway, complaints about Amazon shelving aside – what do you see in just about all of the covers, or in science fiction / fantasy covers in general?

They have a live figure – a human or humans (or a recognizable approximation thereof), an alien, a dragon.

– or –

They have a spaceship, or a recognizably fantastic castle.

– or –

They have explosions. (Well, science fiction frequently does. But urban fantasy can have them too.)

– or –

They have humans, dragons, and exploding spaceships. (Yes, there are some…)

Tales By The Road covers have none of these elements. They are landscapes, with a road. Static. Sigh…

Okay, winding up. I cannot resist showing here one big exception to the humans / dragons / spaceships / explosions “rule.” While researching this post, I ran across Kate Paulk’s Hell of a Job short story. Which, if Amazon had its categories straight, would be in the top ten of my category. Take a look at her cover:

Hell of a Job Cover

None of those “common” elements – but this is fantastically dynamic. Fits the story perfectly.

By the way – there are some covers in my tiny little corner of the Amazon biosphere that are far worse than mine. Not trying to make an excuse here, but I could have really had something to cry over.

Phew! Between research and writing, this post took me about five full days. Yuck. This makes it very clear that I am going to have to cut back some on my ambitions. So… Well, wait. I have an “anniversary and housekeeping post” that has been turning over in the back of my head all of this time, so I’ll put the details there. In fact, that one will probably go up before this one does, just by the amount of work I still have to do to actually get this one up on the blog. In the meantime, the homework readings are below. I will be back.

Links to things you should read:

The Art of Design

The Art of Design, Part II

Yes, you should have already read these. It never hurts to go back, there is a lot of information packed into these two.

Comprehensive Cover Art and Design

Cedar Sanderson here again – but more of “out of the trees and surveying the forest.” She covers the whole “gestalt” of a cover design here, at least for anyone looking to create (or critique) a science fiction or fantasy cover.

Poster Composition and Layout

The article on poster design. Again, there are many, many similarities to cover design – and this article goes into a great deal of depth on the technical, fiddly bits of layout. Including layouts that are not simple grids, and combine basic layouts to create some of the most iconic posters and covers that have ever been seen. Recommended for now, and when you graduate beyond “elementary” school (no, I’m not anywhere near that myself!)

Typography & Cover Art – It’s How You Say It

Dorothy Grant (“fynbospress”) on getting the typography of your cover right. Very important information here.

Going Indie For Dummies – But what is it ABOUT?

The whole gamut of what needs to be in your sales copy – written in Sarah Hoyt’s own inimitable style. The cover of your book is only the beginning, but it is, like everything else you put out there (besides the book itself) a piece of sales copy. Sarah goes over most of the other pieces in this post.

What’s It About? – How to write the stuff on the back of the book

Okay, you may have a “final” product for your ebook on Amazon (or elsewhere). But what about when you want to put out a print book? (Which you will, eventually, even if the majority of your sales are electrons – it’s really, really difficult to go to a con, or a book signing, or hold up your “Will write for food” sign on the corner, without a hard copy to hand to interested people.) Dorothy Grant goes over the “flip” side of a print book in this post on her blog.

The key to it all: Keywords

The other key: Keywords, Part II

Dorothy Grant again, this time writing for the Mad Genius Club. All about categories, and keywords, and getting them right on Amazon. Do not fail to read this! Unless you really want your fantastic, steamy, New Agey type novel “shelved” in the Young Adults – Philosophy section…


Housekeeping and an Anniversary

Richard Skinner

Truly a “miscellany” post this evening. Several things about the blog, my anniversary” as a “writer,” and the (probably wildly optimistic) writing schedule.

Okay, the blog housekeeping first. Posts have been very late and very erratic over the last month. Not at all satisfactory to me – I’ve mentioned that I want to get one review post and one “technical” post out every week. Well, those are still on the schedule, but only the review posts have a definite subject assigned – whatever book I have reviewed for Amazon. Even there, I’ll have to catch up over the next week or so; I’ve reviewed one book by Dan Hoyt and one by Pam Uphoff for Amazon, but haven’t managed to finish up the more detailed reviews for the blog. (Pam’s I haven’t even started as of this writing. Sigh.)

The Learning Curve posts – well, I am editing the latest one on covers this evening, and it will go up either late tonight or in the wee hours of the morning, assuming my current internet provider problems get resolved soon-like. (If they aren’t, you won’t even be seeing this post…) After this one, though, I am not going to guarantee continuing the series on covers every week – they’ll appear as I get them done. While that is going on, there are going to be much shorter posts on various other subjects. Pretty much whatever has hit me upside the head during the week just past, or something on how I approach writing. Obviously, the latter is going to be useful for some, and useless to others – every writer has to develop their own methods for best results.

Let me see… Ah, yes. Once today’s Learning Curve post is up, I will get the Post Index page updated. Later on (I don’t know just when right now), I will be adding some of the “frills” that most blogs sport, like tag words.

Last planned thing on the blog (right now) is that I will be splitting up the Blog Roll into two pages as soon as I can get around to it. I realized the other day that the page, as originally conceived, is restricted to linking sites where advice about writing is dispensed. A good idea, one that works with the name I chose for this place – but leaves out people that should be of interest to a new writer. So, at some point in the near future, the Blog Roll is going away, to be replaced by Writers for Writing and Writers for Reading. Writers for Writing will have the links to the resource sites that are currently in the Blog Roll, along with some new ones as I update it. Writers for Reading, on the other hand, is going to point you to those writers that I think are great examples of writing and professionalism. Which means that most of the people on the other page will also be here, except with an additional link to their author page on Amazon – but also links to the blog (if they have one) and author page of writers that don’t particularly write about the writing process. Yes, that also includes some writers that are no longer with us.

Now, about that anniversary… Probably not a big deal to anyone else, but it was just over a year ago that I decided to try to become a professional writer. Note – try to become. I’m not there yet, quite a ways away in fact. But August 3, 2015 is the day that I started to get organized. Created a spreadsheet to log my word counts and time spent (which has since split and evolved immensely). Began a daily “writing diary” with my word processor – coincidentally called “Writing Observer.” Began organizing folders on the computer, and cleaning up the bits and pieces of documents that I had dabbled with before – as early as November of 2014. And so launched a new “career.”

It’s been a bumpy road, with an immense amount of learning along the way. Hampered by various life events and problems. Slowed immensely by procrastination. As you’ve noticed, it’s still not settled down to a routine – assuming it ever will. Anyway, I decided to share a few numbers, à la Dean Wesley Smith, as of the end (August 2nd) of this first year.

286,909 total words written;
767 average words written per hour (of writing time);
403 average words written per hour (adjusted for non-writing tasks);
537 average daily words (over the entire year);
9,043 total words written (last ten days);
904 average daily words (last ten days);
0,652 total words written (last thirty days);
1,355 average daily words (last thirty days).

Couple of notes to make here – “words written” includes actual manuscript drafts, synopses, character sheets, background appreciations, blog posts, and my daily log. Unlike Dean, I don’t include words written for correspondence. I do include the time on that though, which is part of the “non-writing task” adjustment. Including all of that explains why the word count doesn’t equate to at least three novels for sale right now.

The adjustment for “non-writing tasks” takes into account the time I spend reading the blogs I consider essential for keeping up, on copy-editing, preparing for publication, cover creation, the organization and reorganization of folders on the disk, etc. (You can see that nearly half of my time is actually consumed by things that don’t involve transferring words from the brain to the disk. Sigh. That has stayed steady for quite a while, but I am hoping to see it slowly decrease as time goes on.)

Now, so you aren’t tempted to whip out your calculator, when you divide total words by average words with other things taken into account – I have not quite worked even two hours a day on writing over the last year. Yeah, right – professional writer, my foot. Well, I mentioned procrastination and a few legitimate reasons that have kept that production down. Really, although you will have to take it on faith, since May of this year that figure has gotten much better, something more like five to six hours a day. Still not good enough! The goal right now is to ramp my work time back up to the sixty hours a week, or more, that I worked as a professional software developer. I will get there…

On that subject – getting there – I have some trepidation (well, outright fear to be honest) in sharing my publication schedule, which was actually set into stone just this last Sunday. With the caveat that I make no guarantees whatsoever, though, here it is:

Tales By The Road #2, Fugitive – August 15, 2016.

Tales By The Road #3, Rapid Transit – September 15, 2016.

Tales By The Road #4, Sacrifices – October 15, 2016.

Tales By The Road #5, Hunting Party – November 15, 2016.

Tales By The Road #6, Regular Visitors (A Christmas Tale) – December 1, 2016.

Talons of Vengeance (working title, first novel in a series) – December 15, 2016.

Tales By The Road #7, Clerical Affairs – January 15, 2017.

Tales By The Road #8, Soldiers – February 15, 2017.

Tales By The Road #9, A Passing Acquaintance – March 15, 2017.

Pavement Ends (short story, prequel to Talons of Vengeance) – March 15, 2017.

Counterattack (working title, sequel to Talons of Vengeance) – March 31, 2017.

Tales By The Road #10, Death In an Alley – April 15, 2017.

And that is as far as my courage, or hubris, has taken me for the moment. There are many more novels, in multiple series (including a sword and sorcery series), that I have on the “projected work” list – but they are far too nebulous right now. Some will undoubtedly be collapsed into one novel, or one will be split in two, as I think on them more (this has already happened, so I know there will be more of that in the days and months to come). Many shorter works will undoubtedly be coming to mind, too.

Please stay tuned to this channel…

A Filler Post, For Real – With a Recipe!

Richard Skinner

I really have no idea how I am accomplishing anything today – see my post from earlier in the week. Right now, it’s 94 degrees inside, which is ten degrees less than outside anyway. I really don’t believe my weather site that says there’s only 34% humidity, though.

So, I finally decided to get this post out for a promise that I made a couple of weeks ago or so, over on Sarah Hoyt’s blog. I had mentioned that my wife had an old family recipe for cookies that required 190 proof vodka as one of the ingredients.

Diversion here… I might as well admit that I have an extremely idiosyncratic memory. I can remember phone numbers just fine, the numbers of all the bank cards, every family Social Security number (but not what year they were born). I can remember the plots of books that I have read. I can remember the spelling of words that perhaps a half dozen people in the world ever actually use. I have vivid recollections of places that I have seen only once in my life.

What I don’t remember are the things that most people don’t have a problem with. People’s names (yes, I do remember the kid’s names, even if I don’t always attach them to the proper owner of same). When and how I came up with a writing idea (although I usually do remember the idea). Or, in this case, where a recipe came from.

It turns out that this recipe (which I have nicknamed the “rocket fuel recipe”) is not an old family recipe. I thought it was, because the wife refers to a hand-written copy when she makes it. Nope. It actually is out of a book, and is hand-written because: a) it is not in the form that we in the West usually see recipes, and b) she had lent the book to her sister several years ago.

Well, I got the book back from the sister-in-law this last weekend. And it turns out that it is not a cookie recipe, either! It is actually one for the form of pastry that most people call a cruller. (Okay, I call just about anything that is sweet and crispy a cookie. I cook, I don’t chef…)

So, here is the recipe, which I am cribbing from my wife’s index card, not the book. Although – if you are interested in Polish cooking at all, I can heartily recommend the book (the sister-in-law is not getting it back for a while, I want to try several things in it). It’s called Polish Heritage Cookery. I’ve linked to the hardcover for it, although the Kindle version is about ten bucks cheaper – when you take a look at it, you will notice that the publishers don’t quite have this ebook thing down yet (the Look Inside is scans from the print book, which makes me somewhat doubtful of the Kindle version). The recipe also doesn’t include the pictures from the book on how to make the shape, and I can’t find any web diagrams. Sigh. Another good reason to get the book – it has plenteous and good illustrations.

Angel Wings (Faworki / Chrust / Chruściki)

2 cups white flour
5 egg yolks
1 tablespoon butter, softened
2 tablespoons sour cream
1 tablespoon 190 proof vodka (6% distilled vinegar may be substituted)
Pinch of salt
1 and 1/2 pounds lard (shortening or vegetable oil may be used, but with loss of flavor)
Confectionary or granulated vanilla sugar

Sift flour onto a cutting board, making a well in the center. Place the egg yolks, butter, sour cream, vodka, and salt into this well, then work it into a dough by hand, occasionally beating it down. When done, the dough should be uniform, glossy, and with small holes when cut into. Force as much air into it as possible! On a floured board, roll the dough out as thinly as you can, then cut and form your angel wings. Heat lard in a large pan to a temperature where a small piece of dough dropped into it floats to the top immediately. Fry the angel wings in small batches that can float freely, turning after approximately 30 seconds when the bottom is golden brown, and allow another 30 seconds for the top to turn. Remove to a rack over paper towels to cool down. When cool, dust thoroughly with the sugar.

A Writer Status Post

Richard Skinner

A friend once told me, “If all else fails, you can always blame it on the weather.” I don’t recall at this late date just what failure he was advising me to use that excuse for, but I’ve always hated the notion.

Well, I’m having some failures these days. And the weather is pretty much the sole reason for them. Sigh… I guess I have to pull that card out.

You see, I live in the desert regions of Arizona. Which actually has pretty darn nice weather for a biggish chunk of the year. (No, I’m not trying to start any “my climate is best” debate here. Just about every place has pretty darn nice weather, just the extent and timing of it differ.)

Except for right now – actually, beginning about with July and through most of August. Right now, it is absolutely miserable, especially for my family and myself. You see, we do not have air conditioning in our house, and this is the time of year when the temperature and the humidity are both sky-high. Sans air conditioning, it is miserably hot during the day; and this does not change all that much once the sun goes down. Right this moment, as I write this sentence at 10 PM, the outside temperature here is 93 degrees and the inside temperature is 94 degrees. Evaporative cooling does nothing to alleviate the heat when we are this humid.

Long explanation / excuse for a short problem. I’m just plain not working at any kind of fast pace – and when I do work (night and early morning), quality takes a nose-dive. Just the way it is right now, and I can only hope to correct this annual problem next year, maybe. In the meantime, looking back at my logs, I am still producing a heck of a lot more, writing-wise, this summer than I did a year ago.

The long range view is that I’m very unlikely to meet any of my self-imposed schedules until September is here. At short range, I’m definitely not going to accomplish everything that I want to do.

So, what I think will happen, after looking at things through the cleaned off reality lens:

1) I’ll continue to get my reviews of other people’s books up on Amazon on a weekly basis. This is something that I have committed myself to, and is very important for supporting those people who have inspired me, and continue to give me encouragement. However, the blog posts that go with them are going to appear at some time, maybe a long time, after the Amazon review is done – I started the one for Dan Hoyt’s 9th Euclid’s Prince on Saturday last, and it might as well be gibberish. I know what I want to say, but the brain’s language center, it is not cooperating.

2) The Learning Curve series will continue, although not on a guaranteed Wednesday schedule. I have started the post for this Wednesday, which is probably going to actually go up on Friday at best. But I have named it “Part One (and a Half)” – I was taking notes for it while going through the readings in Part One, and found myself diverted into expanding on the prompts those posts gave me. The nitty-gritty of actually creating covers will continue at some time, I just don’t know when. These are posts that I need to make sure that I don’t make some stupid mistake(s) on, leading the reader astray.

3) The August Tales By The Road short, Fugitive, will get done in August, and probably mid-month like The Simple Man and The Lass. A fair amount is drafted, and the rest of the plot is synopsized; I should be able to finish it with an hour here and an hour there of lucidity. The base cover image is already selected, too, so that is also something that won’t need a long stretch of mental acuity to finish up. (If it were my first cover attempt, though, I’d be in serious trouble.)

4) There are some “bloggish things” on my list to take care of. Those will also get done sometime soon, although they are a lower priority.

5) In any good hours that are left, I am still working on the first novel (working title, Talons of Vengeance). Absolutely no schedule that I can make on that project – I went back to it after the six weeks of getting the Tales out there and starting up this blog, and was shocked at what I thought was done – and turned out to not be.

Of course, anyone living down here in the “monsoon belt” knows that the weather could break at any time; I could start getting the nice massive evening thunderstorms again that cool things off for the night hours. In which case my productivity will rebound. But I’m not betting on it…

Learning Curve – Covering Up, Part Two

Richard Skinner

Here we are – Part Two of the series on creating your own covers. The next step is deciding what pieces of other people’s work are going to be incorporated into the cover. So…

Find the Starting Point(s)

First off, I’m making the assumption that your budget for cover art is like mine – low to non-existent. So your sources for the starting points are rather restricted. Although, to be honest, these days that is not all that much of a handicap. Graphic artists and photographers discovered the internet some time before we indie writers did – there have been low-cost and no-cost sites up there almost since the dawn of the technology.

The three sites that I use – in decreasing order of my being likely to find what I need on them:

Pixabay – https://pixabay.com

The site I use the most, largely because of its sheer convenience and selection of free images. All of the photographs here are free, and licensed (under Creative Commons) for commercial use. (You will see “sponsored images” from Shutterstock in various places – they are plainly watermarked as such. Those are not free, so unless you really, really need that photo, which you are unlikely to, you can just skip those.)

Now, you do need to set up a Pixabay account to download the high resolution photos. Just browsing, no, so go ahead and take a look there yourself right now. I had problems getting my account set up, which you may not have – they send you a confirmation email with a link that you need to finish your account setup, and for some reason that email never got through to my usual inbox. Nor in the spam folder. It just plain disappeared in transit. Very, very annoying… Anyway, I did finally get my account running by creating a Hotmail account and registering through that one. If you use one of the “free” email services yourself, I think that you won’t encounter my difficulties (maybe).

Dreamstime – https:/www.dreamstime.com

Dreamstime has some free images. Honestly, though, I have never found one that I would ever consider for a cover starting point. People with more graphic arts chops than I may be able to create something from them, but I certainly can’t. Note that you do need an account here to even look at very much, although I did not have any problem setting one up.

Most of the images are very low cost, though – so long as you are very careful about how you set your search filters. Always turn on the advanced search – the little gear sticking out below the search banner. For basic searches, on the Advanced Search tab, make sure that the Royalty Free box is checked, and that the Editorial and Exclusive boxes are not checked. For purposes of a low cost cover, the basic royalty free license suffices just fine, you don’t need an exclusive license. You absolutely want to avoid anything that has just an editorial license; that one does not allow you to alter the image, and is very problematic for commercial use. Also make sure that all three of the “extended license” boxes are unchecked – you don’t need any of those licenses for a cover.

Now, on that Pricing: slider – watch that little gadget. I have set it several times, done a search, decided to change my keywords, went back – and it has quietly reset itself to all price levels. Extremely annoying, especially when you have found the perfect image, and come to find out that it is outside of your budget. Set your desired price range and make sure it is still there every time before you click that Search button.

Pricing. Now, here’s an issue that gets rather complicated with Dreamstime. They have two options for buying images – one is a subscription plan, the other is a “credit” scheme. I do not recommend the subscription plans – the lowest cost one is, as of this writing, $39.00 (US) a month, and allows you to download five images in any one month. Way too expensive unless you are doing a lot of covers, and you expect to make a fairly good income every month. The other way is credits – which is what you are setting that price range slider for in the search options. Click on the Prices and download plans in the upper right hand corner of any page to access the current pricing schemes, then on the Credit packages tab. Right now, you can buy 11 credits for $14.99 (US) – which will then buy you about two of the cheapest images (price level 0) at the “medium” or “large” sizes, which is usually what you want.

So here you have to balance your budget against what they have to offer. Not nearly as easy as Pixabay. One thing that I do highly recommend – when you find an image that you think is a possibility, click on it to get the page for it, then right click on the image, select Copy image from the dropdown, and then put it into a new GIMP file. What you have is nothing like you’ll need for your cover – it’s low resolution and will have the watermark on it (no, even if I did know how to get rid of those, I wouldn’t tell you). But you can “play” with it a bit to see whether it really will work for you, before you lay down your money.

Just for reference, here is what I set the search parameters for when looking for the road image in Tales By The Road (although I ultimately did not end up using Dreamstime for that cover). Someday I will be qualified enough to play with the Image properties tab – but that is definitely a subject for much later.

Dreamstime Search Settings

DeviantArt – http:/www.deviantart.com/

Okay, I have to admit that this is more of a guilty pleasure than a site that I look at for cover sources. Although you can find some great cover ideas here, when you are feeling artistically dead…

The absolutely fantastic artists that put some of their work up here can get you lost for hours, literally. A real productivity drain. But – do bookmark the site. There will come a time (hopefully) when you are looking for a professional artist. When you do get to that point, this is a good place to start – look at portfolios, especially if they have done covers for other people, find the person you want to use (and, this being a wide open site, check their references), and open negotiations. (On that, get yourself a copy of Kristine Rusch’s How to Negotiate Anything book. The vast majority of writers – your host included – are completely unskilled negotiators. Kristine’s book will save a lot of heartache when its lessons are taken to heart.)


Whew! That was quite a bit on just the places to get images. On to actually finding the image(s), and getting them onto your system for later manipulation with GIMP. (I’m afraid that I’ll only be showing you how to dig around through Pixabay images, since those are what I ultimately did use as my starting points.)

First, though, before we start playing keyword and search box bingo – let’s refine just what we’re looking for in the images. Now, I didn’t write anything down when doing Tales By The Road – I was pretty much in the role of full time cover “artist,” and I was the only one doing it, so I did just fine with a mental “checklist.” In the future, though, I am going to start getting at least a brief description down, which will be a big help to the spouse when she is trying to cut down the mass to a reasonable number to ask me about. It will also help if you are paying someone else a small amount to simply put images together. Or even if you are still doing the whole thing, but in chunks of “as available” time. Note that the descriptions below are only for the elements that I ended up putting into the cover. I discussed my horrible waste of time looking at people last week – I have way too many images of old men sitting on my computer now.

The road – The Road is a character in the story, so it is really the most important image to get right, for certain values of “right.” I want a road with absolutely no traffic on it, and no urban setting (ideally, with no evidence of Man whatsoever, other than the road itself). It should be winding, not ruler straight – or perhaps just a curve – to have at least some visual interest. Viewed from a normal standing ground level – not aerial, not “artistic” from someone laying down or crouching. Paved, probably with asphalt, but “pebbly” (something like a freshly oiled and graveled surface?), because I’ll want to add a bit of unusual color to it for a slightly not of this time period look. Without our modern lane markings if at all possible. Not all beaten up, either, this is supposedly an advanced material.

The desert – a sand desert, not a Southwestern type desert. Gobi-type, Sahara, something like that. No vegetation whatsoever, or easily removed for whatever little is there. No people, vehicles, etc.; not even an indication of same (no tire tracks). Just pure sand. Already of a reddish cast (around sunset) if possible. Oh, no dust plumes, the air should have been just about absolutely still when the picture was taken.

The sun – a red giant artwork if possible. That may be hard to find for a free picture, so a sunset, or a red-filtered picture could work as well. I need about two-thirds or three-quarters of it, and it needs to be cloud-free. Sunspots? I really don’t have an absolute preference, although it should probably not have too many; from what I recall, those should be less likely on a red giant? (Not going to research that, going to go with my memory there.) Come to think of it, I can probably go without it being extremely red; I can play with “reddening” it in GIMP.


Okay, now I know what I’m looking for, along with where I’m probably going to have to be flexible. Off to Pixabay! Let’s try “winding country road”…

Urk. That returns seven Shutterstock images, none of which would work anyway even if I were able to shell out money for them. Only six free images. Ouch. One of them might work, but would be a headache to get fixed up. Cracks in the pavement, lane markings, the end of it fades into vegetation… Time to get more sophisticated, I know that other people can make this work, there has to be a way.

Start digging. Sigh, no help straight from the Pixabay page. The FAQ? Uh-uh. Time to Bing it. Ah-ha, found it! Pixabay actually uses a pretty darned sophisticated search system, but the only place you’ll find anything about it is down in one of their blog posts. So that you won’t use up your valuable time – it’s at https://pixabay.com/en/blog/posts/advanced-image-search-on-pixabay-46/. Read it, and experiment.

Armed with the “professional-grade” knowledge, here’s the second (well, actually, fourth or fifth) search criteria: “(country OR countryside) AND (road OR winding)” – much better. Free images are now 775, I surely should be able to find something there. And so I did. Tip: learn to scan the images very quickly. Even with the best of search criteria, there are going to be some there that aren’t at all what you’re looking for. For example, I have no idea what a bee flying near to what looks like an orange tree branch is doing in my results. It can be worse – for some reason my later search for the desert pulled back a lot of images of somebody’s laptop in various orientations.

I also use the little gearbox (for settings) up in the top right corner of the results page to show 150 images per page. That just makes it seem a bit less daunting, when you only have six pages to go through rather than eight (for this search).

Now, on Pixabay at least, when you see a “possible” image, you can take a better look at it by hovering over it with your mouse. If it still looks good, click on it, and you will get the page for that particular image up. Don’t get ahead of yourself, though, and download it right now; go through all of the images first. (I mean that – I have found a good enough image on the first page – and then the image on the last page.) But do save the location – either copy down the web address for that page, bookmark it, or do like I do and “save page as” to somewhere on your hard drive (for me, on Firefox, that is a simple “Ctrl+S” and then the “Enter” key).

You’ve found the image(s). You do have the exact pages marked somehow, yes? You do have your Pixabay account all set up, yes? Time to hit the big green Free Download button over on the right hand side of the image’s page. When you do that, always select the highest resolution image that you are offered; scaling it down, as well as other manipulation, is a job for GIMP – not the Pixabay graphics engine. Save it somewhere that is logical for you on your computer. (For me, and for Tales By The Road, this was in the “Writing\Short Stories\Tales By The Road\Tales By The Road\Cover\Working\Sources” – yes, quite a ways down, but I never, ever find anything that I put into a “My Whatever” folder.

I’m not going to subject you to the whole process for the other two elements of the Tales By The Road cover. Bell time is coming close. But here are the three photographs that I ended up with in my “Sources” folder (seriously scaled down for the blog).

Road Source Image It has lane markings, I’ll have to get rid of those somehow. (This actually turned out to be fairly easy in GIMP – I’ll be showing you how.) The asphalt/gravel surface texture looks fantastic though, exactly what I was looking for. Nice curve to it, and bright white lines along the edge to help me mask it out from the background. Just about a win-win.
Desert Source Image Nice and red. All sand, no tracks. Hmm, a few “artifacts” of what look like people off on top of the dunes; need to get rid of those, but otherwise pretty darn good. All right, looking at the road, these aren’t going to work all that well together as-is. But there has to be a way to flip the desert over from left to right, and to get a “flatter” look for it. (Yes there certainly are ways in GIMP, and they are actually simple.) Winner.
Sun Source Image I knew this was going to be a problematic image to find. But this one will do – fairly red color, although I’m going to try to make it a bit darker (which was not a complete success, as you’ll see later). Once I flip it over from top to bottom, I can just crop off the clouds at the bottom; the background is black, too, which will make it easier to mask off, or just leave alone, since I’ll have a black sky on the cover. I’ll go with this one, definitely.

Phew. Enough for one lesson. Go, now, and apply my “wisdom.” Next week – well, I haven’t fully decided on next week, yet. I may continue with actually building the Tales By The Road cover. But I am also digging back through the homework readings that I gave you last week. With two covers now “under the belt,” I am considering the advisability of taking those, folding, spindling, and mutilating them – to show you all of the places where I went wrong with those designs (and a few places that I think I did right). Check back next Wednesday (hopefully).

Useful Links – Find the Starting Point(s)

First, where to get the graphic arts packages – to follow along later, you’ll need them.

GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program)


The link to download the installation program. This takes quite a while to download and install.


You also want the manual, believe me. No, there is apparently no downloadable file; you have to use the online version, which can be inconvenient. Myself, I open it up in the Silk browser on my Kindle Fire.


I’m including the link to their home page here, even though I don’t use Krita (right now, at least). Really, this is a package oriented to the “real” graphic artist. But, if you find yourself with some time, it can be enlightening to watch some of the videos that Krita users have put up on their site; those are awesome.


Filter Forge

Okay, it’s not free. Okay, I didn’t use it on my first cover. Take a look anyway, it’s not all that expensive. (I managed to snag a free copy when they transitioned over from Version 4 to Version 5 – you might get so lucky, as they will apparently be going to Version 6 in not too long. I’m currently dithering over whether I’m brave enough to take a shot at their beta for that…)



To repeat the image site links from above.


Figure out effective search criteria, and I honestly think this is the only site you really need for almost anything you want to do on a very tight budget.



Again, a more “advanced” site – and with very few free images. But they are low cost, and if you cannot find something on Pixabay, there’s a good chance you will here. Watch the search criteria and licenses, though, as I noted earlier.



More of a way to spend an enjoyable couple of hours if you have them. But you may find your cover artist here when you need one for that more “professional” look.



Important legal – and professional development – stuff.

Creative Commons License (Pixabay)

Yes, it’s in legalese. No, it’s not all that long. Yes, you need to read and understand it if you plan to use any image from the site.


Dreamstime Terms and Conditions

Yes, it’s in legalese. Yes, it is mind-numbingly long. Yes, you need to read and understand it if you plan to use any image from the site.



Kristine Rusch’s book. Read it before you even start talking to a possible outside cover artist. Really, I mean it!

How to Negotiate Anything


For convenience, the link to last week’s post.

Learning Curve – Covering Up, Part One

Tuesday Tidbits

Richard Skinner

Another “snap” post, prompted by Other People’s Blogs. (Yes, that is what I call them; I do track the time I spend on those as part of my professional work day.)

But the title tickles me… I think it will become an (ir)regular feature here – as I gather things of particular interest during the week, I’ll build up a post.

Anyway, this “tidbit” is today’s article by Amanda Green over on Mad Genius Club – KDP Select or Not?, where Amanda lays out all of the reasons for a writer to consider enrolling in the Amazon KDP Select program. Read, absorb, think about it. Amazon is the 800 pound gorilla out there. At some point in your career, you will have to deal with them. Comments too – as usual, many other writers chime in with their thoughts and experiences.

Now, for myself, going into KDP Select was a no-brainer. I’m just publishing the Sybly Whyte short stories at this time – and exploring the Amazon environment along the way. I can make a couple of bucks (literally, so far) while doing so. Sybly Whyte is teaching me things – about formatting for Kindle (yep, couple of mistakes so far, nothing egregious, but I’m happy they weren’t on a the first novel). About getting WordPress to cooperate for composing effective marketing posts (had some trouble over the weekend, now thankfully past). Giving me time to set up decent sales tracking spreadsheets (still some work to do there, but I at least know the problems).

The biggest consideration, though, is that I’m hitting the biggest market first, and the easiest one to change – when (and if) it looks like a good idea to branch out into several marketing channels, the most I have to wait before injecting a book into other channels is ninety days. Amazon doesn’t have a barbed harpoon stuck into me, keeping me tethered forevermore to their platform. (Actually, right now, I don’t think they care – from everything I see from other writers, they know that no matter what you do, they are still going to get the lion’s share, by far, of your sales.)

So, my reasons. Your Mileage Will Almost Certainly Vary. Read Amanda’s piece and decide for yourself.


Oh, I do have a bit of “extension” for Amanda’s post – getting at the “KENP page count” for something you have put into the lending system (either KOLL or KULL, see Amanda’s explanation if you don’t know yet what those Amazon programs are). I’m a stickler for precise user manuals…

To find out what your KENP count is:

1) First wait for your book to go completely “live” – a lot of things are done by Amazon after the book is made available for purchase. Right priority here, IMHO – get it on the virtual shelves first, then figure out the fiddly paperwork for the back end.

2) Once it is live, go to your Bookshelf. Way over to the right of your book, you’ll see a label Book Actions:, below that a button Promote and advertise, and then a button with an ellipsis () to the right of that. Hover over that button – clicking all day won’t do a blessed thing… Click the link for “KDP Select Info.”

KDP Other Actions Button

3a) Now, you’ll get a popup. One of two possibles. If you’re within 48 hours of enrolling the book in KDP Select (and you have not done a free promotion), you can change your mind and withdraw from the program. Note that you will still be published on Amazon, just not enrolled in KDP Select.

3b) Once you’re not able to withdraw your book (for the next 90 days), the popup will ask you whether you want to automatically re-enroll at the end of the 90 day term. The box is checked by default – uncheck it if you are just doing Select as a trial or promotional period. (I leave it checked for all of the Tales By The Road pieces.)

4) Close the popup – if you aren’t changing things, just click the Cancel button. Now you are into your “control panel” for KDP Select. I’m not going over everything you can do here (right now; expect a future post as I learn about them). For your KENP count, scroll all the way to the bottom of the page, to the section labeled Earn royalties from the KDP Select Global Fund.

5) At the bottom of this section, you’ll see your page count. Note: this is where the “fiddly paperwork” may not be done yet – you may see a notice like mine on The Simple Man and The Lass that the Start Reading Location hasn’t been set yet. If you have this, plan to check back again in a few days to get the final page count – the one that Amazon will using.

KDP Select Global Fund

Review – Vulcan’s Kittens

Richard Skinner

Another day late post – but hopefully not a dollar short.

Part of this was the abysmal weather yesterday – one of those days here in Southern Arizona that is miserably hot, and miserably humid – but without any of our cooling monsoon rains. The computer didn’t quite shut down yesterday – but my brain very definitely did.

The second reason is that this is a long post. The idea was to do a “mass-market” review to put up on Amazon, then a “technical” review – something like an after the fact beta review – to follow it. Well, the technical part grew on me, which seems to keep on happening around here. I wish it would stop… (For an excellent review of what reviews are, see Dorothy Grant’s MGC post for Sunday. Sigh, I just missed doing a very neat dove-tailing there.)

I find myself wrapping this up, in draft form, at nearly six seven eight in the evening here. So, it still has to go through my editing phase – hopefully not too much, the weather and the brain are behaving much better today. It should still make it up on the blog before midnight. Then I have to start drafting the next Tale By The Road (Fugitive), which scenes for began coming together last night and this morning. Hopefully, after that, I will get going on drafting the next part of the Covering Up posts, in the optimistic hope that I’ll still make Wednesday for it.

Phew! I thought a few weeks of (theoretically) Sunday posts would be reviews. Um, not much reading time in this week, or the next. This coming Sunday (or Monday, or Tuesday…) will have either a “technical” post with my theory of xeno-intelligence as developed for the series of novels – or possibly a snippet with the draft of one of the chapters for the first novel (now with the working title of “Talons of Vengeance”). Stay tuned, please. Oh, this doesn’t mean that I’m not going to try to catch up with my reviews – but they’ll just be the ones for Amazon, until and unless I hit something that I think is a good “learning experience” for the blog. I’ll let you know when I have put up those reviews – along with a promo link for the book, every little bit helps my fellow writers.

Finally getting around to today’s business: the non-spoiler review of Cedar Sanderson’s Vulcan’s Kittens (click this link or the cover image, either one) – the one that will go up on Amazon.

Vulcan's Kittens
Linnea Vulkane is looking forward to a long, lazy summer on Grandpa Heph’s farm, watching newborn kittens grow up and helping out with chores. That all goes out the window the night Mars, god of war, demands her grandfather abandon her and return to Olympus for the brewing war. Now Old Vulcan is racing around the world and across higher planes with Sekhmet to gather allies, leaving Linn and an old immortal friend to protect the farm and the very special litter. But even the best wards won’t last forever, and when the farm goes up in flames, she is on the run with a daypack, a strange horse, a sword, and an armful of kittens. Linn needs to grow up fast and master her powers, before the war finds the unlikely refugees…


Says right here on this card that I’m an official senior citizen, entitled to a discount at the grocery store the first Wednesday of every month. Hmph. Used to be a bit more valuable getting old.

Says here on this other card that I’m male. Check with spouse… Yup. Okay, this “senior” business hasn’t progressed too far yet…

So – why am I here reviewing a “Young Adult” novel, with a female protagonist? Because it doesn’t matter in the least what “audience” a book is supposedly “intended” for. What I look for is a thumping good story – one with characters – one that I feel privileged to follow along with as the plot unfolds.

This is such a story. When young Linnaea goes to stay with her Grandfather for the summer as her mother travels the world on business, she has no idea what she is getting into – but is drawn into an ancient war when she finds herself the guardian for four kittens, who just happen to be children of the Mayan Jaguar God of Terrestrial Fire and Sekhmet, an Egyptian Warrior Goddess. A real heroine, in an exciting non-stop story, something that is all too hard to find these days.

Just an ordinary girl (well, not completely) – who must find the strength to battle the faction of the Gods that wish the kittens harm, sort out her feelings about her own developing powers – and deal with most of the same things that every teenager faces. If you are looking for something to give to the young almost-woman in your life, or the young almost-man, or just keep for yourself to enjoy – pause here and click the buy button. You will not regret it.

There are a couple of problems in this first novel – which you won’t find in Cedar’s later works. There are some issues with a sense of time in the story, and the ending is problematic, so I can only give this book four stars in all honesty. You do want to read it, though – the second book in this series, The God’s Wolfling, will make ever so much more sense after you have read this one.

A note for those who see similarities between this series and the one written by a different YA author. Yes, they are there. Cedar knows as much, and explicitly acknowledges them in her afterword. She also hopes that she did a better job at attacking the idea – I’ll tell you right now that she did a much better job. Enjoy.


STOP HERE – if you haven’t read the book. If you haven’t read the book, get thee hence, hand your silver over to the Amazon, and read it! I’m a patient guy, I can wait… What follows is the somewhat more “technical” review, which does have a few semi-spoilers.


Before I dive in, let’s get a couple of things straight. When a writer reads someone else’s work, unless they are one of the lucky few that can switch off that part of their brain at will, they are simultaneously analyzing the text flowing beneath their eyes. We can’t help it – like any other professional, we are constantly looking for help with our own efforts. What doesn’t work here, and how do I avoid it? What is a beautiful, shiny piece of prose, or scene, or entire chapter, and how do I make mine look so good?

It’s an uncomfortable feeling – and sometimes a dangerous one. We can lose sight of the forest for the trees, people. We have to cultivate an ability to step back and look at the work as a whole – that is what makes a good (or bad) piece of work, not a few blemishes or a few shining passages. The whole work is what matters in the end – and, as you can see from the “mass market” review, Cedar did an excellent job, in my very honest opinion. This being made clear, now I’m going to enter the forest and examine some of the trees more closely.

The main thing that pops out of the entire novel is a lack of time sense. This was noted by one Amazon reviewer, who was confused enough to think that events were actually out of order in the book – which they are not, really, unless I happened to be reading a revised version. Cedar arranges her events in sequence throughout the book, except for a small bit at the end, where she necessarily switches back and forth between the Battle of the Gods on the High Plane and the efforts of Linn and the Coblyns to prepare the “ultimate weapon” at the Nike bunker.

However, the reader does find themselves working to fill out the time span of the events. When Linn arrives at her Grandfather Haephestus’ home, we have one “time mark” – we assume that this is the start of the typical school summer vacation, so it is either late May or early June (no, I don’t know the schedules for Seattle schools – I would look it up if it were important to something I was writing, but I’m being a “typical reader” here). The confrontation between Grampa Heff and the Olympians is clearly that same night – and then things turn vague.

We get another “time mark,” of sorts, at the first climax – when Sekhmet and Steve are collecting the Inuit godling, it is said that autumn is coming to the high tundra. Now, for someone who grew up in the lower 48 – and that is the vast majority of us – there is a vague knowledge that the summer season is very short up there in the northlands – but just how short escapes us. So, the impression that I got was late August or early September… I found myself scrambling to reconcile a three month period with, to be honest, not all that much happening around Linnea, so far as I could tell.

There were very significant things happening, though. Linn was getting training in real survival skills, such as “What do you do when you have to run with only what you have right now?” There is a bare mention of that, when Linn has to make a fire with just her knife and a flint striker (yes, you do normally carry one of those when you’re in the back of beyond, the fire-bow method is the hard way, to be avoided if at all possible). Nothing else, though. When she receives Lambent, her sword, there is a mention of starting “hard training.” But nothing about the training – which would be very hard for a teenage girl, even one with Linn’s admittedly unusual native skills. Sword combat is very different from just about anything else – and it was evident that she did get this training; you do not deal effectively with a zombie hyena without some very serious sword skills. There should also have been some mention of Linn’s growing intellectual development. “Hard training” or not, kitten care or not – a dozen weeks (so I assume, see above) should have been at least a dozen books from Grampa’s library, or more – and we do see the greater awareness of the situation in the Linn of the fall as compared to the Linn just starting summer vacation.

Now these “flaws” would have been reasonably easy to fix. Approached correctly, that is… For a writer with intimate knowledge of survival skills, or a swordsman, it would have been tempting to go too far in the opposite direction – producing “infodumps” on living well when dumped buck naked into the howling wilderness, or the (frankly boring) technical aspects of sword fighting. There are audiences for such things, but they are called “niches” for good reason – and it’s a niche that is highly unlikely to be looking for their entertainment in YA novels.

So, a balance could have been struck here. At least a few more mentions of how Haephestus put Linn through increasingly more difficult exercises in survival; some mention of aches, pains, bruises, perhaps minor wounds, after a session with Bes while learning to use Lambent. All together, these would have added perhaps a page or two, at most, to the novel (two or three page flips for the Kindle version) – but accomplished a better “grounding” for developments later in the novel.

The ending has a “willing suspension of disbelief” problem. This is the second major difficulty – and actually the main one that caused me to give it only four stars. The ending also has a time-related issue – there is a feeling of discontinuity as we seem to go directly from Linn positing that an EMP will kill the immortals, or at least make them very unhappy campers, straight into Linn and the Coblyn strike team boarding their Zodiac on the way to refurbish the Nike missile. We also are rather abruptly thrown into the Battle of the Gods, without any hint of the negotiations that must have occurred between the “good” Gods and the “evil” Gods to reach an agreement to settle matters without involving the humans.

The abruptness of the transitions aside, though, there is a plausibility issue here. One that really should have received far more careful handling, to keep the willing suspension of disbelief going. An EMP blast (presumably over Mount Olympus, where the opposing forces are centered) would certainly end technological civilization over a wide area – at minimum, all of Western Europe. This is supposedly what Haephestus and his allies want to avoid if at all possible; there should have been a very serious debate before they even embarked on that course of action. Besides considering the very real risk that this action would trigger off the world-wide war to end all of human civilization.

Perhaps, though, they had a way to detonate it on the High Plane, although no hint of this is given? Now, that might work – a “go to Hell (GOTH) plan” for the possibility that they would be defeated in the “conventional” battle, to ensure that the opposition would not gain the power they seek. But there are two problems with this scenario – the first being that such would be an act of treachery, after agreeing to settle the issue on the field of battle in the old-fashioned way. But the second problem with this makes such a theory a non-starter from the gate. The Battle of the Gods was over before the option to go “nuclear” was even ready. Daffyd and his crew were still working on the missile when Linn went into the High Plane to find and succor Bes as he lay gravely wounded on the aftermath-littered battleground.

Sigh. Really, I have no good way in mind to resolve these issues with the EMP option. Fortunately, they do come at the end of an otherwise extremely good first novel – but could potentially turn the reader off for trying another offering. No, it didn’t do that for me, but largely because I knew Cedar through interacting with her on-line, and that her future work could only get better – as it certainly has.(or, rather, by the time I read this, certainly did get better). When I come around to reviewing her later works, you won’t find a mention of any of these plausibility problems, and only a hint of the “time sense” problems – I can only hope that I prove to be as fast a learner when correcting my own problematic issues, whatever those prove to be (and there will be some).

All right – enough of the “Oh God, I hope this doesn’t happen to me. Has it already happened? This is getting scary…” What did Cedar do right in this first novel? What do we pull from this work, learn from, and apply to our own? There is a lot here – but I’m going to hit the four biggest, at least in my not-so-humble opinion.

Keeping the reader moving. Cedar does a very good job at this – the reader is not once led down an alleyway to a blind end, and going “WTF? How did I end up here? Where’s the story?” This is not an easy thing to accomplish, even for an experienced novelist (see my earlier note about “infodumps”) – but it is a sure mark of a first-class writer, or someone with the potential to be a first-class writer.

Unless someone is already a fan of your writing, if you lead them into the swamp, they won’t care that there might be a shining city on the hill just ahead. They’ll put your book down, and there is a very good chance that they’ll never pick it up again. It will end up in the library donation pile (or zapped from their ereader), and the kindest thing they will do is never mention you to their friends and acquaintances. You really don’t want to know about the nastiest things a disappointed reader can do – although, alas, you and I are certain to encounter them someday…

Characters you want to know. Okay, this is “young adult” fiction – which when I was technically in that age demographic myself, meant fiction that emphasized the “good” and didn’t make an in-depth examination of the “bad” in the world.

Um, I’ve sampled some other modern works that are marketed in this category – and that attitude has apparently gone by the wayside. All too many of these modern works, supposedly targeted at our children-transitioning-to-adulthood, are filled with main protagonists and side characters that you would never allow into your home, and fervently hope your own children (if you have them) never, ever, encounter until they are well past that most delicate time themselves. These characters are suffering from severe mental imbalances – either intrinsically, or, more often, from a truly horrible environment around them.

Now, there is a place for such books – there are, sadly, all too many young adults that are in situations like these, and might benefit from someone “like them” in what they read – but the majority just cannot enjoy such a book. Cedar neatly avoids this with all of her characters, including Linnea. Yes, some thoughts and behaviors of “teenage angst” creep in, here and there – but not the “wailing, gnashing of teeth, rending of garments” drama that pervades all too many other works these days. Linn is a young adult – not a teenager that is still, emotionally, an eight year old or even worse. Her adults – Haephestus, Bes, Hypatia, et-cetera, also work well. Yes, they are sometimes annoying for her teenage protagonist, which is perfectly natural from her point of view – but they are not capricious ogre-like authority figures against which she must struggle and “triumph” in the end.

The “right” side wins in the end, at least for certain values of “winning.” A failure to do this is also all too common these days – and, for rather obvious reasons, is usually linked to the character problems. The combination of these failures, though, places a book in my recycle bin – not in the donation pile: I won’t inflict such nasty stuff on any other person.

Vulcan’s Kittens doesn’t have this problem with unsympathetic characters, nor this problem, obviously. Linnea and her extended family do win out in the end, defeating the Old Ones (for the time being), and with hopes for a brighter future now that the crisis of the novel has passed.

However – would be writers – take note! Cedar does not wrap everything up in a nice little package at the end. There are still “hooks” there upon which to base a sequel (which she did, I will be reviewing The God’s Wolfling along here sometime). A bit of advice: always, always, always leave yourself some “wiggle room” to add on to your stories. A continuation for your main protagonist(s). An interesting character whose tale can be developed into another full-length work. Something. This is because you do not know, when you let your work roam free, just what is going to happen to it. Yes, chances are that it will sink into obscurity (deserved or undeserved) – but it could blow up into a big hit. If that happy event should come to pass – you will be besieged by people screaming, pushing, sometimes even threatening you to “get the next one out.” Food for thought – if you are familiar with the works of Conan Doyle, consider how very fortunate he was that Watson did not see Holmes falling into the Reichenbach gorge. He had the chance to back away from his rather hasty decision to kill off his enormously popular detective and continue his story (and resume the nice checks coming from the Strand magazine).

Verisimilitude where it counts. Okay, I hammered the problem with “willing suspension of disbelief” above. Verisimilitude is a different beast, though some people do mix them up. The official definition of the word is “the appearance of being true or real.” That an EMP would disrupt the substance of the Gods has verisimilitude – the problem was the disbelief that the good guys would use it.

Where Cedar absolutely shines in this aspect comes much earlier in the book. Now, I don’t know what the various Scouting organizations teach their participants these days, and it almost certainly varies even within the same organization – but the scenes where Linn makes her fire, and then later hunts for her dinner – these ring absolutely true for anyone who was a Scout in their youth, or has had any kind of training in “roughing it.”

Making the fire… Yep, without something on you for tinder, and in that environment (the mountains of Idaho), you go looking for birch bark. And you always have steel and flint – your belt knife and either a striker like Linn, or a pocketknife like I had (and which annoyingly disappeared during one move) that had a flint inlay along one side. One or the other, or possibly both, are part of your “pocket junk,” just like your keys and something to carry your cash, coins, and/or plastic are always with you when you walk out your urban front door.

Hunting for your dinner? Absolutely true. In the real wild, or anything close to it, you do not find many, if any, “vegans.” A diet consisting solely of plant life may be ethically “noble” – but it’s also the road to starvation and death, sooner or later. Without the supermarket and transportation network for getting vegetables with essential nutrients out of season, you are in serious trouble as a vegetarian – unless you have a biggish chunk of fertile land, a serious work ethic (as in “can see until can’t see”), and a goodly helping of luck. You may regret having to kill such cute creatures as a rabbit or a deer – but, like Linn, you swallow that regret, thank your prey for providing enough food for another day, and get on with business.

Verisimilitude in the little things – it goes a long way in helping your reader stick with you when you ask them to believe in the magic, or the technology, or just that your soccer mom housewife really could be a demon-slaying fighter for God (whups, different author, different book – but you get what I mean).