25 February, 2014

Book Covers

Image from amazon.co.uk
My thoughts this week have been turning towards the cover of my forthcoming novel, The Art of Letting Go. If you've been following this blog you'll know that it's being published by a new type of digital press, Thistle Publishing. Unlike some more traditional deals, I have to have a big input into the cover design but, unlike self-publishers, I won't actually be totally responsible for the cover - it will be designed for me. I'm a writer, not a designer, so even a small amount of input scares me! Where do I start?

Self-published books often get negative press for having awful covers. Sadly, this appears to be true in many (I'd say most) cases. Even when an image looks decent, the covers are often let down by the font being inappropriate. However, authors who spend some time on their covers - getting feedback and asking for advice - can come up with something respectable, and those who spend money getting a cover designed professionally can end up with a book every bit as good (or better) than books in the shops. There's also, of course, cases of books being professionally published where the publishers have done little more than pay someone to stick a stock photo on a white cover, successfully making a book of recognised merit look as if it was self-published by somebody in a hurry.

If you'd like some examples of the very worst of the very worst of book covers, look no further than this Buzzfeed article [contains erotica titles]. Most books don't stoop this low!

There is a debate at the moment over whether book covers matter any more. With the rise of e-books, does anybody judge a book by its cover these days? I think they do. In a shop with hundreds of books, I'll pick up the one with the beautiful or striking cover. The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas is a example that springs to mind of a cover that certainly catches the eye (and I love that the edges of the paper in her books are coloured too). Perhaps in a world with more choice, covers are more important, not less. What do you think are the essential elements of a good cover? Do you have a favourite book cover?

A while ago I blogged about Coverflip - a project where people re-desigend covers as if the book had been written by somebody of the opposite sex to the real author. I won't go into that again, but it does make me wonder: how do you design a cover that not only looks good, but attracts your target reader? As the author, you should be able to pick out the essential themes of your books and describe your audience, but how do you translate the former into something that appeals to the latter? If you've ever designed your own book cover, I'd be grateful to hear how you went about the process and how happy you are with the outcome.

All you readers out there - do you judge a book by its cover? What should I consider when thinking about my own novel cover?

21 February, 2014

Quotable Friday (22)

My quotation this week is from the Bible. Sepcifically, it's from the King James Version (KJV). In 2011 I read the entire Bible using the KJV, to celebrate its 400th anniversary. I won't say it was the easiest translation to understand, but the language is quite beautiful and it's amazing how many common phrases we use today originate in that text.

Anyway, there were a few verses in the KJV that tickled me when I read them - they are so much more emotive than in modern translations. Today's quotation is one such verse - taken from the Book of Daniel (chapter five, verse six). King Belshazzar has just seen writing appear on the wall of his palace...

"Then the king's countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another."

Knees smiting each other sounds so much better than knees knocking together, don't you think?

As a bonus, here are just a few of the phrases we get from the KJV:
  • Gave up the ghost
  • Apple of my eye
  • My brother's keeper
  • Out of the mouth of babes
  • In the twinkling of an eye
  • Suffer fools gladly
  • By the skin of my teeth
  • How the mighty have fallen

19 February, 2014

Hatchets and Babies

Thinking about it, the title of the post may appear worrying. If anybody from social services is reading this, please don't call round until you've read to the end!

Today, I wanted to ask you about book reviews - specifically, whether or not you ever write scathing ones. That's not a very friendly subject however, so I thought I'd also give you the option of just following this link instead, to see a batch of photos of babies dressed up as famous book characters. It's much nicer than book reviews. I particularly like Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh.

If you've decided to stick with the book review option, you may like to know that there is an annual award in the UK for 'Hatchet Job of the Year', which was announced last week. This is a "celebration" of the nastiest and funniest book review of the previous year - supposedly drawing attention to the hard work critics do. While the writing in the review has to be funny and insightful, it essentially also has to be very, very scathing. This year, it was won by AA Gill for his review of Autobiography by Morrissey.

What drew this to my attention was this article on The Guardian website, hatcheting the hatcheter (I may well have made both of those words up). Alex Clark is convinced that AA Gill's review was "Less daring and less worthy than it thinks". And perhaps he's right. I wouldn't know, because I don't read book reviews.

Occasionally, I'll look up a book after I've read it, if I think I've misunderstood something - to see if it's the way the book is written or just me - but I never read reviews before reading a book. Do you? I also don't write reviews. I keep a reading diary where I say what I think of each book as I finish it, but I don't show it to anyone and, despite this, still feel bad if I thought the book was no good. I always try to find something positive to say. It was the same when I use to write theatre reviews for an online magazine - I found it impossible to be nasty. I always tried to sugar-coat the criticism.

Do you write book reviews on Amazon, or for something more formal? What do you do if you really don't like a book? I've heard it's etiquette in newspapers etc. not to completely destroy a debut novel. If you don't like it, you don't lie but you aren't scathing about it, as you could well destroy a new author's career before giving it a proper chance. With my first novel coming out this year, I'm really hoping this is true. I'm also painfully aware that whether my book sells could be hugely dependent on whether the first few people to review in on Amazon are nice or nasty. I don't suppose people who buy The Art of Letting Go online are going to have any such qualms about not doing a hatchet job on me. I find the thought of people reviewing my book quite terrifying. If you are published how do you deal with negative reviews?

So which did you pick - hatchets or babies? Please don't combine the two. Or at least, don't tell anybody you got the idea here first...

14 February, 2014

Satisfaction: Traditional vs. Self-Published

A few weeks ago I came across this article on Digital Book World about a study into the satisfaction levels of traditionally published authors and self-published authors. 9000 authors were interviewed last autumn about various aspects of their writing careers. The results were interesting but perhaps not surprsing. The headline fact drawn from the study is this: writers are never satisfied. I find that a bit sad.

Can you guess what authors (of both types) were least satisfied with when it came to publication? I bet you can. That's right - the amount of money earned. Satisfaction for this category was almost identical - 4.5% (self-published) and 4.8% (traditional). At first glance this might make writers appear either a) mercenary, or b) unrealistic. I'm sure there are authors out there who are either or both, but I suspect it's mostly a product of the way the questions was phrased. After all, there's a difference between not being "very satisfied" with your earnings and only having written the book for money in the first place.

I'll leave you to study the table yourself if you're interested (it also includes hybrid authors), but here's a little list of whether traditional or self-published authors have higher levels of satisfaction:

Higher for Self-Published Authors
  • Book pricing
  • Royalty rate
  • Amount of creative control
  • Cover of the book

Higher for Traditionally Published Authors
  •  Number of copies sold
  • Personal costs (not sure if this is financial or emotional!)
  • Amount of time required to edit/prepare the book
  • Amount of professional help received
  • Overall marketing and promotion
  • Quality of finished product

Please! I'm a writer.
The highest levels of satisfaction for traditional authors was for the quality of the finished product (41.1%), and for self-published authors it was the amount of creative control they had (61.8%). Neither particularly high!

I haven't published anything yet (though, that's soon to change) so I can't really add my own experience. How about you? If you have a published book, which areas would you say you are "very satisfied" with? Does anything surprise you about this study? I wonder if there was a study comparing satisfaction of authors about to be published (excited and enthusiastic) with authors one year after publication (realistic!) whether the results would be different.

One thing I'd have liked to see included is overall satisfaction with life. When moving away from the material and into 'fulfilment' I'd like to think writers are more satisfied than most. What do you think?

11 February, 2014

Analysing Your Writing

Over the last few years, I've found that writing a novel follows roughly this pattern for me:
  1. Planning - building an idea of characters and settings and plot without the nitty-gritty of details
  2. First draft - a few months of perspiration and terrible writing
  3. First break - a month or so away from the manuscript to clear my head
  4. Read-through - spotting major plot holes, scenes that need removing, adding or expanding...
  5. Second draft - usually takes about the same amount of time as the first draft, completely ripping apart the structure of the novel and making the big changes that are needed. Weeping over the scenes I love but don't work and have to go. Working at the "chapter level".
  6. Second break - a couple of months (possibly) of writing other things and trying to forget I ever wrote a novel
  7. Read-through - spotting any inconsistencies and smaller structural changes needed, thinking about language and style
  8. Third draft - hopefully only taking about half the time as the previous drafts, getting the final structure rooted and working on the story at the "paragraph level" - attempting good writing rather than just adequate plotting
  9. Feedback - getting a few trusted people to read the manuscript and tell me what they think (and reading it again myself)*
  10. Fourth draft - working at the "sentence level": picking better metaphors, removing cliches, cutting awkward phrases etc. This can be a big job, or not much more than a short edit.
  11. Read-through and edit - continuity-checking facts (weather, dates, ages of characters etc.) and trying to eliminate stylistic tics (over-used phrases and adverbs etc.) Working at the level of the word.
*If it's going well, I might get feedback after a second draft, but usually that's too early.

I'm sure with each novel this process will change a little for me, and for other authors it might be different completely. Although this is my ideal, in reality I've written at least seven versions of my novel, The Art of Letting Go - with each version varying from the previous one by a different amount, whether it's massive plot changes, basic edits or the completely re-writing of one particular character.

With The Art of Letting Go being published soon, I've been working on the "word level". Without the benefit of a professional editor, I was wondering whether there was any software that could analyse my writing for me at this stage. There are a few things out there, but none that did exactly what I wanted and so my husband - a software developer - stepped in. He wrote a basic program that could tell me the things I was interested in knowing about my novel. This included:
  • a list of all the adverbs and their frequency
  • a list of all words and their frequency
  • percentage of the novel that is dialogue
  • frequency of short phrases (to check I haven't over-used them)
The most interesting of these was the first. I wanted to make sure I was sparing with my adverbs. Some words that modify verbs aren't so much of a problem - 'not' for example. But it's those words ending in -ly that can ruin good writing. Of these, my most over-used one is 'really'. I'd used this word 162 times in my novel, and without even needing to re-write anything I was able to eliminate 37 of them (nearly a quarter!) straight away as unnecessary. I was also able to get rid of 17% of my 'probably's and 15% of my 'suddenly's (I didn't have many 'suddenly's anyway, but some people would say that even one is too many!)

I'm not going to give you a detailed analysis of everything I discovered about my writing, you'll be pleased to know, (though it may creep into later posts!) but it was an interesting exercise and one that has made my writing tighter in only a couple of hours. I feel much happier about the overall quality of the work, knowing that I've paid attention to details down to this level. How do you edit your own work in detail?

If I was to offer one specific tip for a writer analysing their work in detail today, it would be this: Find every place you've used the word 'really' and see whether you can eliminate it! Happy hunting...

04 February, 2014

Books We Should Have Liked (but didn't)

I'm writing this little post on behalf of my mum, because she's my mum and this is the sort of thing you do for your mum. And she's a pretty awesome mum. Anyway, after last week's post about whether talent always tells in the end, my mum said how interesting it would be to know which books, considered classics (modern or traditional), people didn't like when they tried them.

If you do a google search for "most over-rated novels" you can probably find a list that includes every classic novel ever written. Everybody has their own opinion on which books shouldn't be considered classics because they're boring or badly-written. You can even find plentiful references to books such as The Lord of the Rings - consistently voted one of the nation's favourite books - and To Kill a Mockingbird, which appears on "must-read" lists more often than pretty much any other book. I've seen a fair few votes for teenage-angst classic The Catcher in the Rye too. And of course there's Ulysses, considered a masterpiece by academics and completely unreadable by most other people (I am proud to say I have read the whole thing!).

Mum didn't get on with Captain Corelli's Mandolin, whereas my votes would be for The Great Gatsby - which I've read twice now, after people told me I must be wrong about disliking it the first time - and Catch-22. I didn't think they were badly written, quite the opposite, I just didn't find them in the least engaging. I've also had one vote for The Husband's Secret. So which books or authors can you not get on with, despite feeling as if you should?