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).

The Simple Man and The Lass Released

Richard Skinner

Yay! I now have two publications under the belt. The Simple Man and The Lass (A Tale By The Road) is now available on Amazon.

Only ONE day after I wanted to have it out – considering that the first was THREE days past the “drop dead” schedule, I’m seeing definite improvement…

I’ve had a hard time figuring out whether to call this the second Tale, or the first, with the original Tales By The Road being the “zeroth.” It’s what I would consider a real short story – actually, skating the official edge of the novelette category, at just under 7,200 words.

I have decided, though, just what these Tales are for me. They’re craft pieces. Not examples of a fully developed craft, but of one just barely beginning. Vessels for seeing what I can do. Can I write “light romance?” Well, I’m not sure of that yet, although that’s a keyword I attached to this Tale. Other Tales will explore whether I can write horror – or historic military fiction – or tragedy – or half a dozen other things. Different places, different conditions, completely different characters.

The only warranty on these is that no two are likely to be the same. We’ll see how it goes…

(TEMPORARY NOTE: The Sybly Whyte page is, sigh, going to take a while to update. Multiple covers are giving me fits. Ah well, another Learning Curve post is being born…)

The Simple Man and The Lass
A simple Man. A lovely Lass. A most curious and ancient Road that tells the tale of their meeting in the green youth of the world. To Erkol, the first human (?) that has ever paused to listen.

One in the series of these rather odd Tales By The Road. Guaranteed to be message free – I hope that you find it to be light reading for a lazy summer afternoon – or any time.

Learning Curve – Covering Up, Part One

Richard Skinner

This post was supposed to go up on Sunday. Then Monday. Then Tuesday. And here it is, Wednesday. With a post that is only the first part. When I refer in the future to the “Demon Post” – this is it. There were a few private issues involved, but the main reason for the delay and splitting up is that this is a larger topic, and I have more to say on it, than I originally envisioned.

Introduction

First off, a fair warning – this series of posts is about covers. The nitty-gritty of the creation thereof, not the designing of them. Design is very thoroughly covered (pardon) by several other bloggers out there – I’ve included some links at the end of the post to some of the best articles I have encountered so far. (Wednesday note – there are some links at the end. When I began digging into the blog posts that I knew were out there, I began following the links to other posts. And following. And following. There is more out there than I had any idea of. Okay, I thought, there are some compilations by other people out there of the various posts, I’ll just include links to those, too. Ack. Every link to a full compilation that I followed was dead. Bad words abused… So the plan now is to get my own compilation put together over the next few weeks and create a permanent resource page for them. Stay tuned…)

The series is also very specific to the sources (photographs and artwork from free or low cost stock sites) that I use. It’s not about creating artwork from scratch. You don’t want my advice on scratch artwork, believe me – I am not even in shouting range of being a visual artist.

They are also specific to the tools that I have used. So far, only the freeware GIMP – although Filter Forge is also installed on my system, on the recommendation of Sarah Hoyt and others – it is still in the limbo of my “to be learned” pile. So – while the basic operations are pretty much common across all serious graphic arts packages, the details are going to be different unless you also use GIMP. (Wednesday note – I will be getting into Filter Forge very soon now, like tomorrow. So there will be some coverage on using that tool. Delay is sometimes not completely bad…)

Another warning – I’ve admitted to not being a visual artist, but I am also a neophyte at creating covers. While I do believe I am managing to do a reasonably decent job, I am almost certainly not doing it in the easiest and most efficient way possible. At least right now. The purpose of this series, though, is not to make you a cover artist, it is to hopefully make you believe that you too can be a “reasonably decent” one. (I’ll be noting some of the mistakes that I have made so far as well – at the very least, you should learn some things to avoid doing.)

Tales_By_The_Road_CoverSo, all of that preliminary wool-gathering out of the way, let’s get started. First off is knowing what the final cover should look like. Duh. I’ll be using my first published piece, Tales By The Road, as the example for all of the following (well, it’s that or my second published piece – for which the cover is not quite done at this writing, although close to it, so there’s no link yet).

 

The Design

Having said this is not about cover design, I’m going to talk about cover design. No, I’m not a used car dealer in another life. But the starting point for any cover is having some kind of design in mind. (There are a few people that I think can sit down in front of their computer and just put things together on the fly – I’m not one of them, and I posit that most people visiting here aren’t either.)

What design? Well, read all of the links that I provide for what the design should be. It should be consistent with your genre, and subgenre, and your specific Amazon category (at this time – things change). It should be simple enough that it works as everything from your full size cover down to the Amazon thumbnail size. It has to have places that you can insert the front cover text – the title and your name – and have that be prominent.

Even if your artistic ability is as horrible as mine, make a rough sketch of it, get it visualized on paper. Something can look good in your head, and you’ll see on the paper that it really doesn’t work when viewed from the other side of your eyeballs, or when compared to the “rules of cover design.” My sketch for Tales By The Road is below (pardon the lines, this was done on my notepad while I was taking a short break in the middle of the weekly shopping trip).

Tales By The Road Sketch

Then – take a while to think about your limitations. Not just your artistic ability, or knowledge of the tools, but also your budget – both money and time. Be as pessimistic as you can stand to make yourself, at least at first. Believe me, I was way too optimistic on all four of these considerations. I fortunately was able to learn better, although too slowly and painfully. Let’s run those down, maybe you won’t make the same mistakes…

Artistic ability. I am one of those people that says “Well, I know what I like, and that isn’t it.” Fortunately, I apparently do have a good eye – at least when I look at covers that the more experienced pronounce “good,” I agree with them, and also with most of the flaws that are pointed out. So far, so good. But that eye does not translate into creation. I did figure out early on that people are beyond my skill set. I just plain was not going to get those right. So the first things to go from my sketch were the “green man” and the “wise old man” – although after much wasted time in looking at stock photos.

Knowledge of the tools. My prior experience with the “visual arts” consisted of cleaning up screenshots of computer screens for documentation, and doing mockups of new designs. In Microsoft Paint. The only real “digital art” that I had ever done was for a CD sleeve on a software package many years ago, in Corel Draw. The less said about that effort, the better… (My boss told me that I should maybe think about applying for a job at a major laundry detergent company. Yes, that bad. He was actually being kind.) A digital arts package is a whole different ball game, and many of the tools are not at all intuitive for a newbie, even after slogging through tutorials. (Although don’t skip that part of the learning process. This is one place you really do RTFM – Read The Friggin’ Manual.)

Money budget. What the budget is in money really depends on what you are publishing. How much are you (honestly, now) expecting to make on the work that you are covering? How soon? For Tales By The Road, I knew quite well that the total wasn’t going to be anything fantastic, and as a first publication, it wouldn’t even hit its very modest stride before several more Tales hit the Kindle store. So, at 35 cents a sale, and somewhere between a nickel and a dime for a full read from the library – how long before I would make back even the extremely small cost of a stock photo? When I finally ran the numbers – a depressingly long time. So, for these Tales covers, I realized that I was limited to free photos and sweat equity. Again, after wasting far too much time looking at the cheapest photos possible on Dreamstime, I switched over to digging through Pixabay. Note that this depends on the work, and whether it is part of a series that you are planning. If the money is available, the first novel in my planned series is very likely to have a professional, paid-for cover. The long term payoff for having a first-rate cover there, and careful consistency between all of the covers, will make that expenditure more than worth it.

Time budget. Okay, I had some time pressure on Tales By The Road. Scratch “some,” substitute “heavy.” When I finally got serious on doing the cover for it myself, in early June, I had a “deadline” of getting the story published by the end of June. Which I almost managed. As I was entering the last week of June, though, I was getting a bit hysterical – the “painting” I had painfully put together was never going to cover the full height of the cover. Only something a bit less than half of it, actually, although (thank Ghu!) the width was okay. Considering my skill level, I was looking at another two weeks to a month of fiddling around with it if I was going to get it to cover from the top to the bottom. So I punted. I went to a “banded” cover design at nearly the last minute. Title up in the top band, then the “painting,” then the author name.

Now, this banded design is not an absolute “no-no” even today – take a look at the covers for David Weber’s very successful Safehold series – but it is not at all a common thing. In fact, all of the examples that I have handy are on books by established stars – where the bands let the publisher emphasize the author name above all else on the cover. In the case of the Safehold covers, it also let them put “ribbons” above and below the painting (and it is a real painting in his case) that contain sales copy. For Tales By The Road, these considerations don’t apply – it is “Sybly Who?” and no eloquent positive reviews. But I needed to get this beast out the door now. (Not spending more time was definitely the wise choice. Digging through my logs, I was actually shocked; I spent, in total, more than thirty-seven hours on this cover. Going by my average production rate for new words, I sacrificed more than 15K of text for this thing. No, this won’t happen again, probably, hopefully… I’ve managed to make a lot of mistakes. Yes, that is a good thing.

Okay, that is it for this post, and my tiny contribution to the art and realities of cover design. Time for you to head out to the blogosphere and read what the truly knowledgeable have to say. Do some exercises, too; dig through the best sellers in your corner of Amazon, see what those have for covers, think about them in light of the vast experience distilled into the posts that I’m linking to below.

Oh – if you are planning to get started on your own cover, yay for you! If you are, consider the four points I’ve covered today, and maybe make your own sketch. Class should convene again next Wednesday.

Useful Links – The Design

Going Indie for Dummies – 3 Signals and Sophistication

First up is this post by Sarah Hoyt on Mad Genius Club. The purpose of art in a gallery is to sell the art. No, I don’t know any artist that enjoys starving – and I do know several (unfortunately, no cover artists). The purpose of art on a book cover is to sell the words. This is a HUGE difference in orientation, and Sarah will at least get you oriented in the right direction with this post.

Ignorance, Expertise, and Asses

Okay, you’re getting advice here. You’re getting advice (and better) from the blog posts that I have linked to. Inevitably, you are going to get advice from somewhere that you really, really should not be getting it. Kate Paulk is famous for the impaling stakes she always has handy – and this post neatly skewers those who will give you (probably) well-meaning, but ultimately bad, advice. Consider reading this post a vaccination…

The Art of Design
The Art of Design, Part II

With these two posts, Cedar Sanderson digs into some of the technical aspects of visual design, which is a far vaster field than just book covers. She then applies those to the specific needs of designing covers. You might find some places in these two articles slow going – especially if you follow her links (recommended). But these two posts are something you should read and absorb before doing even a rough sketch of your cover. (Um, yes, I look back, and my absorption wasn’t perfect. Sigh. I’m re-reading these myself before I finish up the second cover this week…)

Of Covers and Sales

Sarah Hoyt again, on the real purpose of covers. This one, though, is focused more on how things change, constantly. The covers of yesteryear are all too often totally unsuitable for today, and today’s “killer” covers will be antiquated tomorrow. Now, I don’t think that Science Fiction is going to get away from “painted” covers all that soon – it is rather difficult to get a photograph of a believable alien, or a battle around a blazing blue giant star. Fantasy, though, could change back over to photographs any day, month, year now. Those being the two genres that I write (and read) in, I pay attention to trends in those. But Romance – now there is a genre that changes dizzyingly. Not to mention Erotic Romance – when I was a child, the standard cover for books of that type was plain brown wrapper…

Covers Gone Wild! (Non-Snoop Dogg Edition)

Speaking of Romances… Yep, I don’t read them, I don’t write them. But if you have some time, peruse this archive from the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books website.
WARNING, NOT SAFE FOR WORK! Read some of the “Cover Snark” posts. Yes, readers can be vicious about your cover – avoid becoming a victim! (If you are in the Romance genre, whether as a consumer or a producer – I think I can honestly recommend their whole site. Caveat emptor, though, considering my abysmal knowledge of the genre.)

Cover Her Face, Mine Eyes Dazzle*

This is how I wandered into the last website… Okay, Sarah again, talking about her experiences with bad covers over the years. A post that you should read, definitely – but I’m including this one more for the comments; dig down into those too. Like I say in my blog roll, the people that congregate around the Mad Geniuses are an extremely smart bunch of humans (with the occasionally encountered dragon, cat, ox, or time traveling alien for variety…).

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You may have noticed that most of these links, all but one in fact, go to the Mad Genius Club. Very good reasons for this – see the Blog Roll.

The Writer Lives!

Richard Skinner

In a manner of speaking, if you are in the habit of speaking loosely.

Okay, there will be a blog post on covers today. I did manage to complete the research for this one on Monday, and the time was going to be a bit tight to get it all done yesterday, but it was doable.

Until real life intervened. The Skinner family household planning (for as much as the chaos around here ever gets planned) was completely disrupted. For reasons. I got about two hours of solid work in (although I’m rather scared to look at the product today). The rest of the day was bits and pieces – a few hasty social media posts fired off (several of them too hasty, and too reflective of my thoroughly impatient current mood) in between bits and pieces of dealing with the situation.

So. There will be a post on covers by this evening. Promise. Not the one I was planning; this will be a Part One. Right now, the tentative plan is to get the rest of it out on following Wednesdays. The remainder of this week has to be devoted to picking up and reorganizing both the family and writing schedules for some new realities.

A Late Post Notice, Already…

by Richard Skinner

I really was hoping to avoid a post like this, for a while at least. But tomorrow’s planned post is going to be delayed – at least to Monday, or even Tuesday.

Part of the delay is that I’ve fallen slightly behind my private schedule for the next Tales By The Road, so I’ve been putting most of my effort towards resolving that issue.

Another part is that, when I went to dig back through my notes yesterday, I found that I had not finished the process of linking my (almost) daily logs together, so that I could move back and forth between them. This is a practice that I adopted back in April – it makes it so much easier to figure out where I’ve been, and the false paths that I’ve wandered down. Anyway, three hours were consumed yesterday in fixing that problem. Sigh…

The main reason, though, is that the scope of the post suddenly grew. Happens to writers all the time, or so I am told… The wife informed me that she might as well share in my problems (yes, I have a very good wife); she asked me to get her set up and explain how I was making covers – she will take a swipe at getting those off my schedule, thus (in theory, anyway) allowing me to accomplish more writing.

What do you do, when presented with such an offer? Grab it, that’s what you do. Particularly since I know where my daughters got their artistic talents from, and it was not me. So… the post that I was planning, which was going to be just the bare highlights of my current cover creating process, transformed into a much longer piece, more of a tutorial, with pictures. Which is going to take more time to get assembled, edited, and ready for publication.

However, this change in focus is going to make the post a bit more specific than I had planned. It will be about using a specific piece of freeware (GIMP), and specifically the GIMP manipulations that I used to transform and compose the stock photographs. A lot of this will undoubtedly be transferable to other graphic art packages – but the details are certain to be different.

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Now, a note about this blog – the comment system, to be exact. It occurred to me the other day, looking at the number of views that I have had versus the number of comments made, that it is possible some readers are feeling put off by the requirement to enter their email address and a name before they are allowed to make a first comment.

This feeling, if it exists, is perfectly understandable, particularly supplying the email address – all too many times, this can get you onto an author’s mailing list (or less savory mailing lists; you should see some of the junk that shows up in my personal inbox). I want to assure you that this will not happen with a comment made here.

At the moment, I don’t even have a mailing list. I do not record your email address anywhere. WordPress does, of course, to maintain the comment system, but I do not keep a copy it anywhere. Unless, of course, you are a spammer or a troll, in which case it gets copied to the block list – and get off my lawn!

At some undefined time in the future, I will have a mailing list – but only when I can have one that meets my minimum conditions. There are two of those.

First, your addresses must be secure, not vulnerable to any random hacker out for a quick buck by selling my mailing list. Having been a developer of highly secure web sites in my previous life, that means a very high standard of security that I demand.

Second, it must be under my readers’ control as to whether they are included or not – it has to be a matter of two or three clicks of the mouse, at the most, whether to opt in, or to opt out.

A desirable feature will be to have several mailing lists – for new releases in whichever genre the reader is actually interested in, for the contemplated newsletter, etc.

I’m very picky about this “feature” of the web, so it will be quite a while before mailing lists are added to my marketing toolbox. At the very minimum, this blog first will be moved to a private domain and host where I control everything about it, which means a fairly hefty income stream to pay for those things.

So please – comments are very welcome here, and you should feel safe in making them. It won’t overflow your mailbox with even more junk.

Learning Curve – Series Troubles

by Richard Skinner

Snap post that I was not planning – but anyone contemplating writing series should wander over to the Mad Genius Club today.

Now, I don’t anticipate having Alma Boykin’s problems, mind you – all of my series plans are already set up, and the novels neatly slotted in where they belong. On the other hand, I may simply be delusional.

Let’s change that to “I am almost certainly delusional…”