Write a book review

Write a book review

Gwynn Scheltema

Want to do something positive for writers during your time at home? Write a book review! Write a dozen reviews!

A 3/5 goodreads review of the book Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale popped up in my Facebook feed this week from a good friend and fellow writer and reader—and I took note. Why?

I took note, because I find her reviews aren’t like the endless run of promotional 5-star ratings for friends’ books that show up in my feed all the time: gushing reports awash with hyperbole and high praise.

Her reviews are honest and analytical. Even on a 3/5 rating she wrote about what was good. When it came to the aspects that didn’t work for her, she articulated it in that vein—not a trashing by a know-it-all, but considered comments from a genuine reader. She wrote about writing style, story and character problems and all of it couched in the knowledge that her reaction could be to do with what she brings from her own experience to the reading of the book.

So much brilliance: psychological excavations and gorgeous writing, worthy of pencil marks. But ultimately the story weighed me down with its onslaught of details—the kind of notes a diligent writer might keep in a binder called Character Profiles. I wouldn’t have minded had the details bound me to the characters, but in fact I closed the book feeling as though I never really knew anybody, or cared about them all that much..…the trauma that served as the main mystery to be solved over the course of the story, failed to live up to its billing. I suspect this has more to do with the frame of reference I personally bring to the reading room, than it has to do with the writer. Still….Glad to have read it, but left without an appetite for more.

I’m always encouraging writers to help other writers by writing reviews. But I think it’s important that they are meaningful reviews. A writer who reviews with all good intentions to help, but gives a 5-star rating to a book that doesn’t deserve it, diminishes all further reviews from that reviewer. It’s like giving a winning medal to someone who ran only half the course, negates the value of that same medal given to the real winner.

This excerpt from the same reviewer about the book Know my Name: a Memoir by Chanel Miller has me adding this book to my reading list—not just because it got 5 stars, but because it got 5 stars from a reviewer I trust.

A searing, courageous, and articulate stream of social, institutional and legal indictment, emotion, outrage, and love for family — bright red in its flame-throwing honesty and indignation. Chanel speaks for me, and likely for most women I know.

Writing a review

Of course, you can write reviews on many online platforms, but if it’s not something you do often, goodreads is a good place to start because half the “review” is already done for you: title, author, copyright date, genre, price, subject matter of the book, and special features.

Essentially, you need only dwell on highlights of the book and your opinion of its readability. Remember, you are not writing a book report for school, showcasing your knowledge of literature. You are offering a prospective reader reasons to read—or not read—a particular book. Your review should be an accurate, analytical reading but delivered with a strong, personal touch from any reactions and arguments from your unique perspective.

And don’t spoil the book for prospective readers by giving away the ending or unexpected twists. You can say you found the ending satisfying (or not) and you can mention that there were unexpected twists, but hold off on actual details.

As you’re writing, try thinking of your reader as a friend with whom you are having a casual conversation. Use language you would use in conversation rather than trying to be formal.

Review the book you have just read, not the book you wish the author had written. It’s okay to point out areas that were weak, but not to dwell on what you think should have been included that wasn’t.

Questions to consider about your reading experience

A review can be as long or as short as you like. Not all the questions below need to be answered. Pick and choose to highlight what you think is important about the book you are reviewing at the time.

  • Were you engaged from the start or did it take time to get into the book?
  • Will any scenes or characters stay with you for a long time? Why?
  • What aspects were highlights for you: style, characters, world-building, themes, plot? Talk about how well the author dealt with these, what you enjoyed and what you didn’t.
  • Was it an easy read? A wallow in exquisite language? A hard slog?
  • How does it compare with other books in its genre?
  • Did the style and/or content suit the intended audience? What do you think is the ideal audience?
  • Is it a departure from this author’s usual, or what readers would expect? Why?
  • Did the ending satisfy you?
  • Would you read more from this author?
  • Would you recommend this book?

Practicalities

To review a book on goodreads follow these steps:

  • Go to goodreads.com
  • Use the search bar at the top of the page to open up the book’s profile page
  • Scroll down until you see 5 stars and a button Write a Review.
  • Click on Write a Review and type away….
Writing in Difficult Times

Writing in Difficult Times

Jessica Faust, BookEnds Literary Agency 

Originally posted in BookEnds’ blog, the following is such sage and practical advice for writers that we requested and received permission from Jessica to share her words on our Top Drawer blog. This is an unprecedented and uncertain time in modern history. But there are ways we can all keep our creative flames lit. Write on, as best you can, knowing that we hold the mirrors for the world in which they see themselves. Let’s encourage only the best in each other.

There is no doubt that difficult times make writing harder. When the world seems like it is blowing up, focusing and being creative feels nearly impossible. And yet, deadlines don’t stop just because the world is crazy.

No one thing will work for all people and, certainly, everyone’s situation will be different. But for those seeking guidance, I have some tips.

1. Just keep writing. It doesn’t have to be great. It doesn’t even have to be good, but sitting down every day to put words on paper makes a difference.

2. Shut down social media. When the world is crazy-making we all go to social media for information. It’s useful, but can also be destructive. Pick a few times each day to check-in, limit your time, and get out.

3. Talk about it. If you’re truly struggling, reach out to your agent [or mentors or writing colleagues] and let them know. Sometimes just sharing can release what’s holding you back. It’s okay to admit you’re struggling.

4. Do something else creative–make a cake, knit a scarf, take a photograph, or build a coatrack. Finding something you enjoy outside of writing helps take your mind off what is blocking you.

5. Give yourself a break. Times are tough and it’s okay to acknowledge that you’re struggling. Allow yourself some time if you need it.

I wish you all good health. And promise, the words will come again.

Jessica Faust is President and founder of BookEnds Literary Agency where she represents adult fiction and nonfiction. Her areas of expertise are mystery, suspense, thrillers, women’s fiction, literary and upmarket fiction. She also represents select areas of nonfiction. More about Jessica can be found through her blog, YouTube, and Twitter.

10 Signs You Need A Writing Retreat

10 Signs You Need A Writing Retreat

10 on the 10th for March 2020

When your usual source of inspiration has packed up and moved elsewhere or just thinking about sitting down to work on your writing feels more like a chore than a delight, it may be time for you to escape somewhere to write.

Of course, we’d love it if you joined us at our annual writers retreat Spring Thaw this April but there are other options. From renting a cabin in the woods to pitching a tent in the backyard, there are ways to arrange your retreat from the world. No matter your choice, it’s up to you to get inspired once more and put your focus on your work in progress.

Here’s 10 signs that just might be pointing to your need to get away and write:

1. Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are far more interesting than your current work in progress…even if you fooled yourself into thinking you might find inspiration from other writers posting their success stories.

2. When friends or family ask you how your writing is going, you change the subject. Repeatedly.

3. You spend a lot of time looking up recipes to at least be creative somewhere. That soufflé might be amazing but it won’t look great on your bookshelf three years from now. Your book will.

4. Your day job drains every ounce of creativity you once had and even the days off are lost causes. You yearn for vacation time but then remember that it’s booked up with family events.

5. The name of your main character is hard to remember…or the working title of your book…the name of the antagonist…or why you set a science fiction novel at a seaside resort…it’s all so vague now.

6. You have nightmares about winning the Giller Prize where everyone boos and calls you a hack and they take the cheque back. Really? Doesn’t every writer have that nightmare?

7. You yell “plot hole!” repeatedly at the television and then worry your novel is nothing but plot holes.

8. You can no longer imagine your book being published — in fact, you’ve forgotten why you started the darn thing in the first place.

9. The noise level at home is a constant distraction: kids, pets, neighbours, the dishwasher — you name it, there’s no quiet zone to just reflect.

10. You avoid meeting up with other writers to avoid hearing how well it’s going for them. Not that you don’t care, but really, it is hard to take when you’re in a literary sinkhole of nothingness.

Some of these may be a bit tongue-in-cheek but there’s a ring of truth in all of them. We know, because we’ve experienced them in one form or another. That’s why we offer our escapes.

And for 2020, we’ve opened our country properties to writers who want a self-directed or supported writing escape. Choose from a cozy lakeside home in the Northumberland Hills or a traditional riverside cottage in the Haliburton Highlands. Send us an email at info@writescape.ca for more details.

There are probably 110 signs that a writer needs a writing retreat. Add to our list in your comments.

I Read Canadian Day

I Read Canadian Day

Gwynn Scheltema talks to Andrea Adair-Tippins

February 19, 2020 saw the celebration of the first I READ CANADIAN DAY. I asked Andrea Adair-Tippins, my friend and fellow writer, and librarian at Whitby Public Library, all about it.

What is I READ CANADIAN DAY and how did it come about?

Andrea Adair-Tippins shows off a stack of Canadian books

While driving to a school visit in one of the western provinces, children’s author Eric Walters had an idea. What if children were encouraged to read Canadian books—starting with just 15 minutes on just one day? A day he called “I Read Canadian Day.” He got on the phone and started calling people, organized a meeting between different organizations to discuss how they could support what they all believed in – Canadian books.

This initiative is now supported by the Ontario Library Association, the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers).

What sort of activities happened on that day?

Whitby Public Library Central Branch

Hundreds of libraries, schools and independent book stores across Canada participated! People were asked on February 19 to read a Canadian author or illustrator for just 15 minutes with the idea that if they haven’t read Canadian this would expose readers to some great reads.

To encourage this, authors attended events, special story times were held with Canadian themes and guest readers, and scavenger hunts to find Canadian books were held at libraries.

authors Ruth. E. Walker & Bill Swan at Whitby Public Library

Also at our library, we extended our “I Read Canadian” promotions to get teens and adults involved. We handed out buttons to people who checked out a Canadian book. We peppered our information desks with maple leaves recording our patrons’ favourite Canadian authors.

We took photos of our local Canadian authors “reading Canadian” and promoted locally.

Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge shows support

Blue Heron Books, a local independent book store had a reading corner set up where community members could sit for 15 minutes to read.

Shelley Macbeth of Blue Heron Books in the “I Read Canadian” storefront



What was a highlight for you?

I loved that everywhere people were talking about Canadian books!

According to Eric Walters, Canadian book sales have declined by 50 percent in the past decade.  Fifty percent? That’s terrible. Not just because we aren’t supporting authors, but we aren’t reading books that reflect our culture, our language, and our beliefs.

This doesn’t mean books by authors in other countries aren’t good and don’t deserve to be read, but shouldn’t we want to see ourselves in the stories we read? Shouldn’t our children? We live in a country that is diverse, compassionate, tolerant and welcoming. We need to read and hear the stories that reflect us. We need to read stories that call us to task when we fall down.

Our stories are unique and valid and valuable, and I am so lucky to work in a place where I stumble on new writers daily, luckier still I get to champion those writers. Having a day where everyone from libraries to booksellers to actors to the Prime Minister promoted Canadian books was a lot of fun.

What’s next? Will this be an annual event?

I understand that it will be an annual event. I know my library is planning to participate again, on an even bigger scale, next year. And seeing how successful the event was this year, I’m sure organizers will come up with bigger ideas for next year.

How can readers and writers get involved?

In addition to promoting Canadian work, organizers want to make sure access to Canadian books is possible for children everywhere, including communities where funds are limited. So one component of I Read Canadian Day involved monetary donations. Donations can be made through the I Read Canadian website to help make that possible.

And in the meanwhile, keep reading Canadian! We don’t need a special day to do that all year around. Librarians are only too happy to help you find Canadian authors

Last Word from Gwynn

If you want online help finding Canadian authors, try my favourite: 49thshelf.com

As we said in out post What’s on the 49th Shelf, this website is the largest collection of Canadian books on the Internet. They are also likely the most fully realized collaborative website in the world celebrating one nation’s books and authors.

Quaking Before the Query

Quaking Before the Query

Ruth E. Walker

Next to the synopsis, the query letter is one of the biggest challenges writers face. It comes with loads of baggage because it’s the first thing of yours an agent or acquisitions editor will see. As such, it has specific tasks to accomplish and the pressure to get it right can knock the enthusiasm out of any of us.

According to New York Book Editors blog post: In essence, a query letter is a marketing page that talks up your book, without overselling it.

Simple enough on its face but there is an art to querying agents and publishers. And that art looks darn near impossible when faced with boiling down your 85,000-word manuscript into a single “marketing page.”

It’s as hard for me as it is for you. So, like in my post two weeks ago about the synopsis, I broke my query down into manageable steps.

  • Basics about the book
  • Special about the book
  • About the author
  • Invitation
  • Double-check

Basics

Genre, word count and title are necessary basics.  In my case it’s a science-fiction YA novel at 98,000 words and set on a terraformed world. I tossed in a bit about setting which, for science fiction, is often a key element.

The basics must appear in your query; if not as part of the opening then just before the closing.

You can, and should, add a bit of flavour to your basic stats especially if you have some way to make a connection with the agent/publisher. For example:

  • I took note of your preference for unreliable narrators OR
  • Your client list includes several YA speculative fiction authors who are favourites of mine OR
  • I heard you speak at last year’s AdAstra Convention and noted your interest in YA series books.

In my case, my most recent query is to a U.S. agent with whom I have no connection. But a bit of research clued me in to what caught her attention in other queries, so I flavoured my query with a teaser: As with Defy the Stars and Enemy Mine, my protagonist is naively wrong about who her enemy is. Her challenging journey is painful but necessary for her to recognize that she alone is her world’s enemy…and its hero.

Will it work? I have absolutely no idea, but I believe it’s worth trying. If nothing else, it got me thinking about how to use comp titles AND boil down the overarching issue of my protagonist.

Special

Here’s the “juice” of your query. It’s what makes your book special and the reason the publisher’s eyes widen and your manuscript gets read. This is the hardest part for me to write. I resist the temptation to cram in details, subplots, minor characters and thematic elements that I love in my novel.

Instead, I must share my main character’s wants and needs, and highlight the obstacles and crises that keep her from getting either. Finally, I have to avoid the telling how it all ends (after all, that is the job of the synopsis)

So just like editing anything else, I pare the Special section to less than 200 words and end up with a full query of 380 well chosen words. I think I still have some trimming to do but my query is now in much better shape because I brought focus to it, especially to the “juice” section.

About you

Keep your bio short but include details that resonate with your book. For example, my query always includes a reference to my creative writing workshop at a school board’s art camp (arts kids read YA) and my stint as an artist in residence primarily working with at-risk teens at an alternative high school (inspiration for my strong-willed protagonist.)

If you have some writing award or genre-specific detail to add here, go for it. But there’s no shame in being a debut author and stating that: This is my first completed novel. You can always add in a bit of branding: I am an eclectic writer who follows inspiration, characters and ideas onto the page.

Invite a response

The closing paragraph is a place to show that you actually read their guidelines without saying so. If the agent only wants the first 3 pages of your ms: I’ve attached the first 3 pages of my manuscript… and to show you are ready, you can add…the full ms and synopsis are available upon request.

Inviting the agent or publisher to contact you if they’re interested is simple enough but remember to say thank you. A simple finishing line: Thank you for your time and consideration acknowledges that you understand that reading your query took effort.

Take a second look

Even one little spelling or grammar error can put off an agent. So take it slow and give your query some cooling off time before you send it. Just like the manuscript you spent years on, a query is not a 30-minute process.

What a query is not

Over one page in length — it is a quick scan process so make sure that agent will read beyond the opening paragraph. In short, keep it short.

A major suck-up to the recipient — While it’s fine to offer some sort of connection or understanding of the agent’s/publisher’s preferences, don’t gush how they’re your dream agent or longed-after publisher. It might bring a smile to their faces…just before they click on the “trash” icon.

A place to show off — promote your strengths but summarize — instead of listing all the journals your work has been published in, summarize: …with fiction and poetry in several national journals. Your literary C.V. is for grant applications, not your query letter.

Cast in stone — An agent who only wants two paragraphs about the book and your contact info won’t look at your four-paragraph query. A publisher who wants the synopsis and no query letter…well, you get the drift. Know your audience and revise each approach accordingly.

More context

Jane Friedman

I’ve already given you a link to New York Book Editors. Here’s a few more websites I’ve found helpful in crafting my query. Jane Friedman set me on the right path to break down my query and Writers’ Digest offered several examples of successful queries.

You can never learn too much in this tricky world we write in. I’ll let you know if my query nets more than a polite no — you let us know how the query process goes for you.

p.s. If you need an escape to focus on your synopsis or query letter, there’s still a couple of spots remaining in this year’s Spring Thaw writers’ retreat. And you get a one-on-one consult plus notes from both Gwynn and me on up to 10 manuscript pages. That’s enough for both your query letter and synopsis.

Same but different

Same but different

Gwynn Scheltema

The sun was out today and I took a photo of the view down to the lake…the same view I’ve taken dozens of times before. Yet I keep taking it because every photo is different.

It made me think of creative writing exercises in a group where everyone gets the same prompt and the results are always different. It also reminded me of several creative exercises that riff off the concept of same but different.

Australian writer, Paddy O’Reilly,  says“Deep and focused attention makes the old new. It recognizes connections between things we thought were unrelated. It throws light on hidden parts of ourselves and others. The attention we pay to the world pays us back as writers.”

View out the window

Poet Ingrid Ruthig taught me that same can be different. The basis of her book Slipstream  was a scene observed out of a window every hour on the hour for eighteen hours.

  • Pick a vantage point: maybe the same window or the same bench in a park or the same table in the café where you write. On different occasions, record what you see. Jot down notes or list randomly on a page. Also, take note of the thoughts that come to your mind that may not seem to have any relevance on the scene. Reminds you of… Same colour as… Makes you feel like the time when…
  • I try to write down at least 30 different observations each time. I find the first 20 are things that everybody sees. The last 10 are the interesting ones.
  • When you’ve done it several times, look for connections or themes or opposites—and see where freefall writing takes you.

The Hunter technique:

Some years ago, I made it into the finals of a slam poetry contest with a poem about naartjies (what Canadians call clementines). It was a poem about my life, but I used the naartjie as a thread to weave different periods in my life together, a technique called the Hunter technique.

In his book Write Your memoir: The Soul Work of Telling Your Story, Allan Hunter describes this technique as a way to rediscover details and memories buried under accumulated life.

  • Select an item we wear, use or make, and that recurs in your life: shoes, sewing machine, apple pie, bathrobe, car, eyeglasses, garden…
  • List 4 to 6 examples of when you had that item in your life. Where were you? Why did you have it? Who was in your life? Note as many details as possible about the item itself: old/new; given/purchased; physical details, etc. Most importantly remember how you felt about that item during the time you had it.
  • Make the connection: Very often the things we own and especially the way we feel about them reflect our emotional state from that time in our lives. Using the objects as a thread we can link different episodes in our lives. Try it…

Alien invasion

My husband and I play a game we call Alien Invasion. We imagine that we are trying to describe things that would seem the same to an alien. For example, all the kinds of moons we see: wolf moon, rain moon, wishing moon… Recently we had a full moon in February—a snow moon. If you were to describe such a moon, what words would you (or your characters) use?

What colour is snow? You’ve only need to spend an afternoon looking at The Group of Seven paintings to realize that it is everything from grey to pink to purple and yellow.

And how about water? What colour is that? Or the sky? Or hillsides?

Hone your observation and vocabulary skills by playing Alien Invasion: Waiting for a bus? Find 3 different ways to describe the bus shelter. Bored travelling in a car? Ask what colour blue the sky is today. Find words for the feeling in your stomach from watching the world woosh by.

That’s not how I remember it

When I read Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible, one of the things I loved most was the different perspectives the five voices telling the story had on the same events.

Weddings, holiday dinners, business meetings. Any occasion that brings people together will be a sea of different emotions, motivations, memories, attitudes, etc., all reacting to the same event.

If one of your scenes seems flat, switch perspectives for a while (just an exercise; you don’t have to keep it.) Once you know the perspective of others in the scene, you’ll be able to make dialogue more effective, and who knows…the scene may even go in a completely different direction.

Last Word

On April 17, 2020, a group of very different writers will all gather at the same place, Elmhirst’s Resort for Writescape’s Spring Thaw Retreat. There are only a couple of spots left, so if you were thinking of joining us, visit our website and secure your spot.

Synopsis-itis

Synopsis-itis

Ruth E. Walker

A recent session on writing a book synopsis had me take a closer look at what goes into a synopsis and why it’s necessary. Let’s start with the necessary part.

Why start here? Because you need motivation to slog through the process of writing the darn thing right after you’ve spent years reaching the final draft of your beautiful novel. You are now exhausted. Brain dead. Wanting nothing more than getting your novel manuscript out there to eager agents and publishers and–what? You now have to condense 95,000 words into about 700 words?

Are you kidding me?

Right. So let’s start with why you need a synopsis.

Show you know what a novel needs

Agents/editors need to know you’ve written a beginning, middle and end. No one wants to read your manuscript only to discover you’ve simply stopped writing and tacked on “The End”. Your synopsis needs to present the plot and its arc, offer up the main character arc and convey a satisfying ending.

A synopsis doesn’t play coy by finishing with “And if you want to know how it turns out for Freddie Schmudlump and his hilarious gang of bank robbers, read the manuscript.”

Show you are not an amateur

A synopsis is a timeline presentation of the events and main characters of your novel. So not only do you pare down your glorious prose and engaging subplots, you stick to the timeline as presented in the novel. Don’t summarize with “In a series of flashbacks, we learn that Freddie’s piggy banks were stolen by bullies, so he is forced into a spiralling fall into a life of crime.”

A good synopsis outlines the main characters’ wants/goals (Freddie wants to be financially secure) and needs (Freddie needs someone to show him how to earn a living instead of stealing it.)

And remember that reference to “don’t play coy” by holding back the ending? Do not bury the plot twist, aiming for an “ah-ha!” moment. Like it or not, the synopsis of your novel is not the place for fancy footwork. Think of it as a business document and accordingly, written in clear language with the focus on the main points. No digressions. No layers of subplots and sudden reveals.

How to boil down 95,000 words

I’ve been working on my own synopsis for several weeks and stumbled onto a process that is making all the difference: working backwards.

From a post at JerichoWriters in the UK, I learned to start with the basics and build up the synopsis instead of paring down the novel, as follows:

Status Quo — the main character’s world before the inciting incident that triggers the story

Initiating Incident — the crack in the main character’s world that changes everything

Developments — the series of events that lead the story and characters to the crisis

Crisis — the fireworks, the culminating conflict, the big deal we’ve been building toward

Resolution— the last few pages, the whole end, the part in which you don’t “play coy”

This process is a genius approach because it keeps you on track for the necessary elements of a synopsis. JerichoWriters suggest that Developments should offer up no more than 40% of the synopsis, even though that is the bulk of the actual book.

Jane Friedman, former President and CEO of HarperCollins, in a Writer’s Digest post recommends an opening paragraph “identifying your protagonist, problem or conflict, and setting.”

She also reminds writers that agents and publishers are looking for strong writing skills. While the synopsis is a business document it still needs energy, so use an active voice. If you need a refresher on active voice, you might find our 10 Quick and Effective Edits useful.

But I’m a really good writer…

Lastly, if this is a clear document with a business-like tone and short, declarative sentences how can you demonstrate that you’re a terrific storyteller? How can give any sense of your ability to engage emotions and craft vivid scenes with a just-the-basics synopsis of 500 to 800 words?

By being clever. Sprinkle in those trigger words that evoke emotion. Drop passive language and use that active voice to your advantage. So if you’ve written “Freddie wants to be financially secure” consider “Freddie longs for financial security.” Taking a flat verb and giving it some oomph and energy makes a big difference.

In this case, we’re also giving Freddie some emotional punch. Interesting characters advance any plot when they have emotions and feelings.

A synopsis is just one tool to entice an agent or publisher to ask for the full manuscript. But it’s an important part of the package that includes a compelling query letter and at least one full sample chapter (generally the first chapter) that no agent will be able to resist. More on the query letter in a future post.

10 Tips on Book Covers

10 Tips on Book Covers

You can’t tell a book by its cover but you can hint to readers what the story is about. The choice of text, colour, font and images carry messages for potential readers and can either invite or dissuade purchasers from picking up your book. Many authors are choosing to self-publish or publish cooperatively and sometimes they miss the mark with their covers

You can’t control how a reader will react to your story but you can entice them to at least turn the first few pages with a great cover. Once they’re inside, well, the rest is up to you and your story, author.

1. Start by considering your genre: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, memoir, history, self-help, instruction manual — for each genre, readers will respond to clues you plant with your cover about the genre

2. Look at other book covers, especially those in your genre. Remember that traditional publishers don’t always get it right when it comes to book covers so look for books that were bestsellers for debut authors. Covers for established bestsellers don’t have to work as hard as that first cover and for series book covers, they take on a kind of cookie cutter appearance.

3. Think about the overall book structure: is this a standalone book or one of a series. If it’s the first in a series, you are free to establish the “look and feel” of your cover, knowing that you’ll continue that with the subsequent titles. BUT if it’s the second book, everything you do should somehow connect back to the first cover — the same font and title — the overall appearance should echo the series

4. Consider your concept: complex plot or character driven — this will affect the images you choose — character-driven should give us a “person” as the central focus; but if this is a complex plot, intriguing illustrations or images may take the forefront

5. What about the mood of your book: high stakes excitement or slow unfolding discovery — deciding on this will help with colour palette for the background and the fonts. Too many self-published authors choose a colour for their cover text that disappears into background colours. You want readers to notice your title and your name. If they’re squinting before they open the book, they are already in a negative space.

6. Use images that carry an element of your story: pictures, illustrations, and signs can be integral to your book cover. A springtime tree suggests new beginnings, growth. A barren tree suggests an empty life or one about to end. There are images that symbolize just about anything and photos that can evoke all sorts of ideas and emotions.

7. Experiment with fonts — once you found those perfect images, look for the type of font to match. Horror writers will choose a different font from a romance writer. But what if it is a horror with a romance at its heart? It can get tricky to choose the best style of text for your cover. And what looks good in small type can be ghastly in large letters plastered on the front of your book. Keep going back to existing book covers in your genre and look at the fonts they chose.

8. Mock up your cover — place the image(s) on “dummy” book — print out the image in different sizes and move it around on the blank surface. Of course you can do this digitally but it is not the same as seeing it in trade paperback or hard cover size. See how different lights affect the look. Think about high gloss versus matte finishes. It will all make a difference.

9. Print out the cover text with different fonts and font sizes then try out various layouts with the images and colours you choose. Will your name be on the bottom? Will the title fit on one line? Or is breaking it into two lines more eye-catching? Remember, this is experimentation and will take time until you feel you’ve got the final cover. But this a huge part of your marketing plan: your book title and your author name.

10. Many readers go to the back cover before reading anything inside. So open up that mock up to create the back cover and the spine. Again, you can do this all digitally but what’s the fun in that if you don’t have a tactile connection with your cover? You’ll need to spend some time deciding on what compelling text you’ll add to that back cover. Often, it’s a variation of your pitch, your logline, your #pitmad golden egg that you slaved over to help promote your book.

My non-journal

My non-journal

Gwynn Scheltema

I’ve just returned from a couple weeks’ vacation in the sun: idyllic ocean vistas, new taste experiences, and cultural delights. Lots to write about in my daily travel journal…except…when I travel, I don’t write a daily journal; I keep a non-journal.

My Non-journal

My non-journal began when I was on an extended trip back to my childhood home in Zimbabwe to look after an ill relative. What should have been a golden opportunity to stir up old memories and write screeds and screeds of material turned out to be a dry well. I had all the physical sensory impetus around me, but emotionally and mentally I was in a very different place, and just couldn’t write a word.

With that came the guilt: “I should be making the most of this golden opportunity”; “If I just start to write- write anything- I should be able to get going, so why can’t I?”; “Is this self-sabotage?”

In the end, I stopped fighting the ideal and just did what I could: lists, photos and language.

Lists

I began to make lists: a list of local flower names, a list of bird sounds; a list of signs of decay in the house where I was staying……

Making lists freed me up emotionally and mentally, because I didn’t have to craft sentences, and I didn’t have to call on memory or emotion. I gave each list its own page and added to it whenever I could. Even travelling back on the plane, I could add to any of the lists.

Now, years later I look at those lists and realize what a goldmine they are. I have details that I likely wouldn’t have recorded had I been writing a prose piece:

  • half a phone book from ten years ago
  • a dried-up bottle of cochineal
  • iron burn marks on the sheets

Photos

Sure, we all take photos, but we live in a social media age that programs us to take pictures of perfection: beauty, excitement and such—all things we would share with others. Or personal moments with people. Or the food we eat. All that is fine, but in my photo non-journal I also take photos of things for my future writing.

I don’t advocate experiencing life through a lens, so I’m not suggesting that you stop just looking and recording in your memory, merely that when you do stop to take photos, you take a full range of the experiences, not just the “nice bits” or the “Facebook worthy bits”.

I take pictures of the dirty back street one block back from the tourist route, close ups of the kind of garbage lying in that street. I take photos of the menu as well as the food. I take close-ups of flowers and leaves of trees. I take photos of oddities, both pleasant and disturbing, like the old lady asleep, wrapped up in a moth-eaten crocheted blanket on a sunny yellow porch on a thirty-degree day.

Language                                                                                    

One of the best ways to make a character or place seem real in writing is to include local idiom and language. Being unfamiliar, I find cultural phrases are easily forgotten, so in my non-journal I keep pages for jotting down things people say and explanations of what they mean if necessary.

  • dumb as a cow’s arse
  • she flapped her lips
  • give it to Old Pisquick over there
Southern ground hornbill walking in the high grass in the Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

I also record foreign language words and phrases that locals pepper their conversation with.

  • names of things – utshani = grass
  • exclamations of surprise—ini indaba? = what’s the matter?
  • orders—faga punzi = put it down

Hidden Gold

Initially, I didn’t have great expectations from the jottings in my non-journal. I think I did it more to assuage the guilt of not writing. But I was wrong.

Those “meaningless” jottings have a peculiar effect when I reread them. Even the smallest snippet has the power to take me back to the time I wrote it. If I open my mind, whole scenes and sequences come back to me. I can use my lists or photos as prompts to write.

And it goes beyond that. For instance, that item in the list above “a dried-up bottle of cochineal” doesn’t just take me to the house where I observed it, but also back to memories of days doing ballet and using cochineal to dye our pointe shoe ribbons pink.

Each non-journal entry is a quiet tendril, moving slowly through my mind encircling memories for me to use now that I am home from my travels.

Crybaby for Characters

Crybaby for Characters

Ruth E. Walker

Life of Pi movie still

True Confession: I cry in the sad parts. Tears trickle down with a good book. Louisa May Alcott’s Beth in Little Women, again and again with Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle (alternating with laughter, of course), the tiger at the end of Life of Pi.

So many books have brought me to tears. I’m also a sucker for a well-acted stage production, movie or TV show.

It’s the characters

I invest in characters. I cheer for them and I admonish them and I cry for, or with them. Of course the story matters because that’s where the characters come to life. But the most compelling actors or characters in a story won’t move me if I don’t believe in the truth of their situation.

Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise

Star Trek is a television series I’ve followed since the early days of Captain Kirk. I watched every single television incarnation or reboot. And the movies. I don’t have a room full of Trek memorabilia but until my doggie decided to chew off his leg, I did have a tiny Captain Jean-Luc Picard on my office windowsill.

I’ll admit that some of the stories are not especially well drawn. And especially in the early days of limited FX options, those alien masks were, shall we say, rudimentary?

But it’s always been the characters for me: how they act, react and yes, occasionally, over-act (sorry Bill.) Because I believe, on some level, that they are real and the situation they are facing is founded in reality.

A learning moment

A recent story-time session with my 2-year-old granddaughter Clara reminded me that characters — even non-human ones — can have an emotional impact on readers.

One of her favourite books when she comes to visit me is Snow by P.D. Eastman. It’s an early reader in the Seuss series and frankly, the text could use some work: What is snow? I do not know. I do not know what is snow. and  Do you like it in your face? Oh yes, I like it anyplace. Suffice it to say, while I like repetition for word recognition, encouraging snowballs to the face is problematic. And yes, Grandma does know what is snow and explains it. But I digress.

Clara loves the book, always asks for it and so we read it. Until last weekend.

My granddaughter immerses in books. In the case of Snow, when we reach the pages where they building a snowfort and make snowballs, her fingers are all over the page, gathering imaginary snow to add to the construction.

But then we come to the snowman

At first, everything is fine. Just like every other time, she gathers the snow with the book characters, rolling each one into a three-tiered figure. Adds the glasses, pipe, coal smile and the ubiquitous hat. We turn the page.

The sun comes out.

The snowman melts into a slushy puddle.

And this time, for the first time, her face is stricken. “I don’t like it,” she says, her face now on the verge of tears. “I don’t like it,” she repeats.

What? This never happened before. Not with her. Not with any of my other grandchildren. I shift into hyper-vigilance and flip over the page. Distract her with the kids putting snowballs into the fridge freezer to keep them from melting. Suggest the snowman could go there as well.

Then I say, “We don’t have to read the snowman part again.”

Clara looks up at me, thoughtful. “Okay,” she says. But I’m pretty sure what she means is that we won’t read the book again. Ever.

Mending a broken heart

An illustration on two pages of a simple early reader book came to be absolutely real for her. And she was heartsick for the melting snowman.

It was a beautiful moment for me and a teaching one, at that. I was the learner and she, the instructor. Characters can be beloved even before words on the page are familiar.

I always thought that stories were favourites of very young children because the rhythm of the words and engaging illustrations caught their attention. But I hadn’t thought about a relationship with the characters. I thought that was something that grew as toddlers became more self-aware primary kids.

Pixabay

I also recognize that despite my love and frequent interaction with dozens of very young children over the years (my own, my daycare charges and my grandchildren), I had more to learn about the way story characters impact them. That even toddlers can have sufficiently developed empathy to be moved by characters.

It will be some time before I’ll be introducing Clara to Star Trek. But in the interim, I’ll be looking for additions to my children’s library at home. Suggestions, as always, are welcome.