Building Fate’s Cover

Fate web cov 200Usually I don’t think about a book’s cover until I’m close to completing the manuscript, but the cover concept for Fate’s Door leaped into my mind fully formed as soon as I started writing of Nerine in the Mediterranean Sea.

I could see her so clearly on my mind’s eye, emerging from the water, with her blond hair and hazel green eyes, and a wave crashing behind her. That vision stayed with me all through the writing of the novel, and I began the search for the right photographs much earlier than usual.

After several separate tours through the Dreamstime site, I thought I’d found the right model. She looked like a sea nymph to me. Finding the right wave was even easier. I wanted one that was still rolling along part of its length, while crashing into white foam on another part.

2 The wave

I downloaded comp copies of both photos to see if they would work together the way I thought they would. And they did! I was pleased.

However, I did not immediately purchase the files and set to work on building the cover. I was still in the middle of writing the book, and it was important that I not distract myself from that task. It’s a good thing I made the prudent decision.

I remember Lois McMaster Bujold mentioning on her blog, some years ago, that a certain novel of hers remained just three chapters from the end for a good half of the book.

(Unless my memory is utterly wrong. Which it could be. I have a terrible memory.)

But Fate’s Door was like that book of Bujold’s. Once I’d written 100,000 words (roughly 300 pages), I was just 15,000 words from the end. For the next two months! At 160,000 words (roughly 400 pages), Fate’s Door had finally reached “The End.”

After I readied the manuscript for my first reader and sent it to her, I turned my attention to the cover. And decided that I didn’t like my choice of photo representing my heroine. She was too serious. Just as important, she simply wasn’t Nerine.

This same thing had happened to me when I designed the cover for Caught in Amber. I had to go photo-hunting again, and discovered exactly what I wanted among the dozen or more models I’d originally considered. That was Nerine!

1 Nerine

Once I’d purchased the right to use the photos on my cover, I downloaded the files. Then I isolated the wave from the sky over it, and clipped Nerine out from her background of tree leaves. I’ve shown the clipping required in the images above.

3 Wave on coverThe next step was building the progression of waves in my cover file. I’d already done this in the test comp file, so I followed it as a guide. The waves flowed together very nicely, creating a marvelous sense of the sea’s power. I was pleased.

The next step was to place Nerine. Again, I followed what I’d done in the comp cover, but using the newly chosen photo of a different model. I discovered that the green of the tree leaves shining through her hair was very close to the green of the sea. A stroke of pure luck!

4 Nerine on coverI carried on with placing the title and the tagline that goes above it. Next came my byline and the tagline that goes below it, as well as the underline that visually connects the descending letter “J” to the tagline “Author of Caught in Amber.”

At this stage in building a cover, I can see whether or not the design is coming together. The design for Fate’s Door was definitely coming together, but like every other cover I’ve created, some problem areas remained which would require tweaking.

The first correction I made was to place a translucent green screen over all of the water. It’s fully 70% opacity, but with the light quality set for “soft light” rather than the more usual “normal.” I did this, because I really liked the color quality of the water in my test comp, and the full resolution photograph had a darker, more blue quality. My green screen gave the water a more inviting hue and restored it to that of the comp image.

5 first conceptionHowever, the most obvious problem area was the back cover. While I really liked the scene I’d created – Nerine rising from ocean waves – the back cover was not going to provide the even color tone required for cover copy. In fact, the alternating white of sea foam and dark green of the waves would provide the very worst possible background for text.

The dark green would call for white text, while the white foam would need black text. And alternating black and white text would look awful, as well as being hard on a reader’s eyes. Something would need to be done. That something felt rather obvious to me. I’d had doubts about the layers of waves from the beginning, but been beguiled by the scene I was “painting.”

6 Adjust the backThe solution was to stretch the dark green portion of the wave to cover the entire back cover and feather it to gently transition into the foaming wave on the front cover.

Fixing the most egregious problem caused the next worst one to leap to my eye. The title was hard to read, because its first word – Fate’s – was neatly bisected by where the white foam of the frontmost wave gives way to the green of the next wave rolling in. I tried moving the frontmost wave down, so that the color change occurred between the two words of the title. The golden color showed up equally well on the two colors – white and green – so it worked, in that sense. But I didn’t like it.

I didn’t like splitting the title. And I didn’t like how the overall composition looked with the white sea foam positioned at that lower level. I decided to try something else. What if I left the sea foam essentially in place, but stretched it vertically, so that the upper edge fell near the top of the first word?

I tried it.

And I liked it. Very much.

7A Move wave

I considered Nerine’s dress. I’d already changed it from pale pink to white. I’d hoped it might look like sea foam, but it didn’t. And Nerine doesn’t wear dresses in the sea. But I had a plan. I selected a section of sea foam with the right shape, copied it, and placed it over her dress.

It needed a little stretching to make it right, but Photoshop’s warp tool is a handy thing for just these situations. The foam was a little too white, as well, since it was out from behind that “soft light” green screen that I’d placed over all the water. Another easy fix: place a similar screen over just this front portion of sea foam.

Next I poured in the back cover copy.

Still looking very good.

Now it was time for the final tweaks, mainly placing translucent screens with softly feathered edges behind some of the text. The tagline above the title got a 20% screen of wave green behind it. My byline received two screens, a hair-colored one at 30% behind “Ney-G” and a 20% wave screen behind “rimm.” I made both large enough to also fall behind “Author of Caught in Amber.”

8 final Fate cover

A few more similar screens went on the back cover behind “Wild Unicorn Books” and the price and genre. I decided to remove a small awkward piece of Nerine’s hair, where it protruded from behind the ISBN box and simply looked odd, separated from Nerine herself as it was.

My cover was nearly finished. The spine needed all three of the usual elements: title, byline, and Wild Unicorn logo. The elements themselves are simple, but I expected to have trouble with them because of the pesky flower in Nerine’s hair.

Now, I love the flower. I can just imagine it plucked from a blooming tree by a lover, and cast on the waves as a wish, to alight in Nerine’s hair as she surfaces. But its location on the spine is problematic, because it might all-to-easily interfere with the title – either crowding the title or making it hard to read by peering out from behind the letters.

This proved to be the case when I first placed the title. The flower was located behind it. Not good.

However, I usually start with the title larger than I need it, because making it smaller is always an option. Whereas, if I decide I need it larger, I must start over with the larger image again. Each time I shrink an image, some of the data is discarded. Taking the small image and enlarging it does not restore the lost data.

As I made the title smaller and smaller, I could see that it would probably fit very nicely between the top of the spine and the flower. There is even a little room (considering aesthetics) to make it smaller yet, if required. But I’ll need to see an actual physical book – the proof copy – before I decide. On my computer screen, the title looks a little crowded by the flower.

But the only place the spine will be seen is when a reader holds the trade paperback in his or her hands. And I’ve learned that the size of type on a screen appears very different from its appearance on a physical book. This post will likely go live on my blog before I’m working on the paper edition, but I’ll add a note to tell you how the title issue turns out.

Once I placed my byline on the spine, I saw that the flower was not the only constraint. The title has essentially 9 “letters” in it, when you include the space between the two words. My byline has 12 “letters.” I like the letters of title and byline to be the same size on the spine. Which meant, in this case, that the letters had to be small enough for both title and byline to fit, along with the unicorn profile which is my imprint’s logo.

All of the elements required translucent screens behind them to make them easily readable – hair-colored for most of the type and the logo, water-colored for the “E” and the “S” in “Fate’s.”

And here it is, with the spine complete. For now. 😀

9 cover spine

Edited to Add April 2016

My first reader gave me excellent feedback on Fate’s Door. I made revisions to correct the issues she found, and then sent the manuscript off to my second reader. My second reader gave me equally good feedback, and I made yet more revisions.

All in all, three-and-a-half months passed while my readers read and while I wrote revisions.

During that time, I also revised the copy that appears on the back cover of the paperback. Below is the corrected version of the cover.

Fate's Door, final cover, 600 px

Given that the cover for the paperback is complete, where – you may be wondering – is said paperback? Why can it not be ordered on Amazon or anywhere else?

Here’s my problem: the metallic gold title looks good at full size on the paperback. But it’s not quite right at thumbnail size on a website page. I’ve tried many variations to see if I could improve it: metallic brass, jade green, copper orange, and more. All of the variants looked worse than the metallic gold. Much worse.

Fate's Door, cover variations

I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel and go with the gold filigree.

And thus the paperback still waits on my hope that I can figure out a solution to my title quandary. Cross your fingers for me – and for my readers who prefer paper to digital – that I dream up my solution soon! 😀

Edited to Add May 2016

In the comments below, my friend Alicia suggested that I try a different gold texture for the title treatment. Her suggestion stuck with me all week after I read it. I’d already tried five alternate gold textures, and none of them worked. But I had a feeling she was onto something.

I searched for yet more gold patterns and found half a dozen possibilities. None of them worked either, but I still felt that Alicia was right. I took a week’s break and then searched again. This time I found one, but I hoped it just might be the one.

When I tried it…I liked it! A lot! Alicia was right when she said, “You’ll know the minute you find the right combination…”

Thank you, Alicia! I doubt I would have persevered so long and so successfully without your suggestion and your encouragement.

Fate tapestry cover

I saw one more problem after I created the new title treatment. It’s a little crazy that I hadn’t noticed it sooner. I did my first work on the cover when I was still writing the book’s manuscript draft, and when I returned to the cover (many months later) I’d forgotten that the tag line above the title was originally a placeholder.

I’m still shaking my head at myself. Really, J.M.? Really?!

Alas, really. It’s fixed now. 😀

Secrets, like troubles, come in threes – when you possess one…

Fate’s Door is available as an ebook. Amazon

Fate’s Door is available as trade paperback.
Amazon I B&N I Fishpond I Mysterious Galaxy Books

For more cover builds, see:
Building Wild’s Cover
Building Glory’s Cover
Cover Creation: Perilous Chance

 

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Mother Holle

"I am half sick of shadows," said the Lady of Shalott by John William WaterhouseMother Holle (or Frau Holle) is one of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, but it may be far more than a fairy tale.

In most of the other Brothers Grimm stories, anonymous and magical beings enter the world of the protagonist to assign heroic quests, bestow blessings, or mete out punishment.

Mother Holle is quite different, in that the magical being is named, she lives in the heavens, and the protagonist of the story must go to her by paradoxically diving into a spring. When Mother Holle shakes her featherbed, the loosed feathers fall to the earth as snow. These features suggest that the story is an origin myth for a supreme Mother Goddess with roots in the early Bronze Age.

Holle seems to be a northern version of the southern Perchta or Berchta, a goddess of spinning and weaving. She had both a light and a dark aspect, the one beautiful and shining, the other old and haggard. The name Perchta seems to derive from both beraht (Bright One) and pergan (Hidden One).

In my novel Fate’s Door, I imagine Holle as a Great Mother Goddess and the first weaver to sit at the loom of fate, weaving the lives of her children – mortal and immortal – into being.

Windswept by John William WaterhouseAfter millennia of weaving alone, she longs for company. When a wandering oread – a nymph of the mountains – climbs too high and is carried away by a cloud to Mother Holle’s cottage, she begs shelter. Mother Holle gives it, and the nymph stays for some time, recovering from her ordeal in the sky.

As she regains her health, the nymph helps the goddess with her tasks – both those of the household and those involved with her weaving. The two become friends. The nymph asks if she might make the cottage her home at the same moment when Mother Holle asks the nymph to stay forever, thus becoming a spirit or a numen of time.

This is the young Orroch, who eventually becomes the eldest norn.

In time, Mother Holle acquires another helper. When she is weary, the two young numeni play music to soother her and themselves, for the burden of crafting destiny is heavy.

Saint Cecilia by John William Waterhouse

After yet more millennia, another young nature spirit joins the family, and Orroch persuades Mother Holle to seek her freedom and leave the weaving to her helpers. Orroch promises the goddess that they will faithfully hand down the traditions of destiny to the new heirs that arise, and only then does the goddess depart.

Orroch imagines the goddess roaming the cosmos beyond even the confines of the sky, meeting strange denizens, and pursuing adventure, but no one really knows where Mother Holle has gone.

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May by John William WaterhouseOrroch herself takes the role of weaver, while her helpers become the Pattern-maker and the Shuttle-catcher. They also seek the materials needed for the loom.

As the centuries roll by, Orroch remains steadfastly at her weaving, but newcomers take the roles of her assistants. No longer are they selected by chance. Invitations are sent to promising candidates. Orroch is content that this should be so until a certain lake nymph named Cinnisuent learns the ways of the norns. Only then does tragedy enter Orroch’s breast.

Mother Holle from the Brothers Grimm

A widow had two daughters. Her stepdaughter was beautiful and industrious, but the widow favored her birth daughter, allowing the girl to become lazy and spoiled. Thus the stepdaughter had all the work to do, becoming the Cinderella of the house.

Every day the poor girl sat by a well, next to the highway, and spun so much that her fingers bled. Now it happened that one day the spindle was completely bloody, so she dipped it in the well, to wash it off. It slipped from her hand and fell in. She ran to her stepmother weeping, and told her of the mishap. She was scolded sharply and mercilessly.

Her stepmother said, “Since you have let the spindle fall in, you must fetch it out again.”

The girl went back to the well, and did not know what to do. Terrified of more scolding, she jumped into the well to fetch the spindle. As she sank below the water, she lost her senses.

The Flower Picker by John William WaterhouseWhen she awoke and came to herself again, she stood in a beautiful meadow where the sun was shining, and there were many thousands of flowers. She cupped one in her hand to study it more closely.

Then she walked across the meadow and came to an oven full of bread. The bread called out, “Oh, take me out. Take me out, or I’ll burn. I’ve been thoroughly baked for a long time.” So she stepped up to it, and with a baker’s peel took everything out, one loaf after the other and set them in a wide basket lying nearby.

After that she walked further and came to a tree laden with apples. “Shake me. Shake me. My apples are all ripe,” cried the tree. She shook the tree until the apples fell as though it were raining fruit. When none were left in the tree, she gathered them into a deep basket which lay under the tree, and then continued on her way.

Finally she came to a small cottage. An old woman peered out through the open window. She had very large teeth, which frightened the girl, who wanted to run away. But the old woman called out to her, “Don’t be afraid, dear child. Stay here with me, and if you keep my household in an orderly fashion, all will go well with you. Only you must take care to make my bed well and shake it diligently until the feathers fly, then it will snow in the world. I am Mother Holle.”

6 Boreas by John William WaterhouseBecause the old woman spoke so kindly to her, the girl took heart, agreed, and started in her service. The girl took care of everything to Mother Holle’s satisfaction and always shook her featherbed vigorously until the feathers flew about like snowflakes. Therefore she had a good life with her: no angry words, and roast meat to eat every day.

After she had been with Mother Holle for a time, she became sad. At first she did not know what was the matter with her, but at last she determined that it was homesickness. Even though she was many thousands of times better off with Mother Holle than at home, still she had a yearning to return. Finally she said to the old woman, “I have such a longing for home, and even though I am very well off here, I cannot stay longer. I must go up again to my own people.”

Mother Holle said, “I am pleased that you long for your home again, and because you have served me so faithfully, I will take you back myself.” With that she took her by the hand and led her to a large gate.

The gate was opened, and while the girl was standing under it, an immense rain of gold fell, and all the gold stuck to her, so that she was completely covered with it. “This is yours because you have been so industrious,” said Mother Holle, and at the same time she gave her back the spindle which had fallen into the well.

Then the gate was closed and the girl found herself on earth again, not far from her mother’s house. As she entered the yard the rooster, sitting on the well, cried, “Cock-a-doodle-doo, our golden girl is here anew.”

The girl went inside and, as she arrived all covered with gold, she was well received, both by her mother and her sister. The girl told all that had happened to her, and when the mother heard how she had come to the great wealth, she wanted to achieve the same fortune for her other daughter. She made the lazy girl go and sit by the well and spin. To make her spindle bloody, the girl shoved her hand into a thorn bush and pricked her fingers. Then she threw the spindle into the well, and jumped in after it.

Like the other girl, she too came to the beautiful meadow and walked along the same path. When she came to the oven, the bread cried again, “Oh, take me out. Take me out, or else I’ll burn. I’ve been thoroughly baked for a long time.”

But the lazy girl answered, “As if I would want to get all dirty,” and walked away.

Next she came to the apple tree. It cried out, “Oh, shake me. Shake me. My apples are all ripe.”

But the girl answered, “Oh yes, one could fall on my head,” and with that she walked on.

When she came to Mother Holle’s house, she was not afraid, because she had already heard about her large teeth, and she immediately began to work for her. On the first day she forced herself, was industrious, and obeyed Mother Holle, because she was thinking about all the gold that she would receive.

But on the second day she grew lazy, on the third day even more so, and then she didn’t even want to get up in the morning.

Ophelia by John William Waterhouse

She did not make the bed for Mother Holle, the way she was supposed to, and she did not shake it until the feathers flew. Mother Holle soon became tired of this and dismissed her from her duties. This was just what the lazy girl wanted. She thought that she would now get the rain of gold.

Mother Holle led her to the gate. She stood beneath it, but instead of gold, a large kettle full of pitch spilled over her. “That is the reward for your services,” said Mother Holle, and closed the gate. The lazy girl walked home, entirely covered with pitch.

As soon as the rooster on the well saw her, he cried out, “Cock-a-doodle-doo, our dirty girl is here anew.”

The pitch stuck fast to her, and did not come off as long as she lived.

The End
 

When I envision Mother Holle as she appears in my protagonist’s thoughts, I see a queenly woman resembling those painted by the Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century.

Therefore, when I began my search for images for this post, I looked among the works of the Pre-Raphaelites. Although John William Waterhouse painted several decades after the break-up of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, his style blended theirs with that of his contemporaries, the Impressionists.

And it was amongst the Waterhouse paintings that I found images that matched those of my mind’s eye, as you can see from the selections above. While searching, I also discovered a video combining a slide show of many Waterhouse paintings with the music “Tu chiami una vita” by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, lyrics by Salvatore Quasimodo. It is so beautiful that I simply must share it with you. 😀
 

 

For more about the world of Fate’s Door, see:
Nerine’s Room
Brocade and Drawlooms
Cottage of the Norns
The Norns of Fate’s Door
The Baltic Sea
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi

For more about Mother Holle, see:
Mother Hulda on Wikipedia
Frau Holle on Wikipedia
Perchta on Wikipedia

For more about John William Waterhouse, see:
John William Waterhouse on Wikipedia
Waterhouse Signatures on the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood
The Winds of Waterhouse on the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood
Waterhouse’s Undine and Mermaids on the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood
 

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Bookkeeping Prompts Another Cover Revision

Ashkenazi Sefer TorahI’ve been catching up on my bookkeeping. This is appropriate, because my current work-in-progress, Tally the Betrayals, is about a bookkeeper.

(He inks his tallies on scrolls. Thus the photo above.)

Now he’s not your ordinary bookkeeper.

He works in the “dark tower” of Silmaren in the Bronze Age of my North-lands, keeping track of the tin and copper flowing into the smithies where the weapons of the troll-lord’s armies are forged! And one of his tin ingots has gone missing.

But I digress. (And, yes, that was a tease.) 😀

Back to the bookkeeping at Casa Ney-Grimm.

I was updating my year-on-year spreadsheet, where I see how many copies of each book title sold each year, from 2011 through the present. It helps me assess the big picture.

web imageSeveral things became clear after I tallied the numbers for 2015. My short stories sell sporadically and by the handful. This is normal. Short stories just are not as popular with readers as longer works.

Except my Crossing the Naiad, which sells steadily. Still by the handful, but every month readers are choosing Naiad, which intrigues me. It’s a great story, yes. But so is Resonant Bronze a great story. What is it about Naiad that has extra appeal?

More experienced writers than I tell me that this is always the unanswered question, so, moving on…

Next conclusion: novellas sell better than short stories, still by the handful, but steadily. (Sort of like Naiad, in fact. Except that Naiad is not a novella.)

And novels sell best of all.

None of the above is really surprising. But the thing that caught my attention was that Livli’s Gift – a novel – is alone amongst my novels in selling merely like a novella. What’s up with that?

I think I know the answer. It was the cover. The old cover just wasn’t right.

Now I revised the cover a few weeks back and blogged about it. But seeing the cold, hard numbers made me revisit the issue. Sure, I’d revised the cover, and I liked the new version a lot. But had I revised it enough? If the old cover had been hurting its popularity that much, had I truly fixed the problem?

No, I didn’t think I had.

So I’ve been tinkering with it some more. I’m not quite done tinkering. I have a few more details I want to change. But I thought I’d show you what I have thus far.

Livli's Gift, night sky cover, 350 px

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

What do you think?
😀

To see the original cover of Livli’s Gift, created step by step:
Creating Livli’s Cover

To see the cover revision of Livli’s Gift:
Why Revise a Book’s Cover

To see the inspiration for my novel Tally the Betrayals:
Tally the Betrayals

 

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Nerine’s Room

Nerine's room

When Nerine first enters her room in the 6th scene of Fate’s Door, she is desperate to find some oddment that she can add to the tapestry of destiny that will save her friend Altairos.

The well at the roots of the World Tree has just shown Altairos drowning at sea. And Nerine knows that if she can just find the right forbidden something, she can save him. Maybe.

She tries to calm herself – anxiety rarely helps one think clearly. The warmth emanating from the tile stove in the right corner on the outer wall helps, but not enough. Her errand is too fraught, too weighted with life and death.

So she’s looking at her room with far more attention than she’s given it in the last 5 years, and we look with her.

There are the built-in wardrobes on the left, with a stack of drawers and a niche between them. Could that vital something be behind those wardrobe doors or in one of the drawers?

Floorplan of Nerine's RoomAcross from the room’s door, there’s the shelf and mirror, and the two chests of drawers tucked beneath the shelf. There must be many trinkets stored in them. Maybe the saving item is amongst them.

The bed on the right with its nightstands seems less likely, as does the cushioned armchair near it. Surely the the linens in the blanket chest at the foot of the bed are too large to be incorporated into the tapestry of fate.

But Nerine considers everything. She does not have much time, and only the right thing will save her dear friend.

For extra chapters from Fate’s Door, see:
Update on Fate’s Door (Eilidh and Mount Olympus)
Nerine’s Youngest Sister (Agnippe and Mount Helicon)
The Nine Muses of Antiquity (Agnippe and the Muses)
Hera’s Handmaidens (Eilidh’s Farewell Party)

For more about Nerine’s world, see:
Brocade and Drawlooms
Cottage of the Norns
The Norns of Fate’s Door
The Baltic Sea
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms

 

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Why Revise a Book’s Cover?

original cover for Livli's GiftI love the illustrations done by Kay Nielsen for the collection of Norse folk tales East of the Sun and West of the Moon. His work inspired the North-lands in which so many of my stories take place. And his drawings appear on the covers of several of my books.

The cover for Livli’s Gift features an illustration of the gardening queen in the folk tale “Prince Lindworm,” a story that is mentioned as part of the folk lore in my novel.

I still love the cover I originally created, but I felt some qualms about it after I submitted it to Joel Friedlander’s monthly cover design contest in March 2014. Joel found the design depressing. I didn’t agree with him at the time, but his opinion introduced a sliver of doubt into my awareness.

What if he were right? Was my cover causing readers who might love the story to click away from the book’s Amazon page without ever checking the “Look Inside”?

Livli's Gift at thumbnail sizeThat doubt niggled and niggled inside me. Finally I realized what bothered me. At full size, on the paperback or on a Kindle Fire, the cover still looks great to me. But at thumbnail size – the way you initially see it online – it does look gloomy. Or at least somber. Which is all wrong. Livli”s Gift is not a gloomy tale. Honestly, none of my stories are. I infinitely prefer hope and redemption!

I decided my cover needed revision. After all, every indie publisher should revisit the covers of her backlist every 3 to 5 years. Times change, cover styles change, but stories can be forever. Every good story deserves a cover that isn’t dated or stale. And Livli’s Gift deserved a cover that didn’t give a false impression.

But I didn’t want to change the art. I love the line drawing of the queen bending over her cherished plants. Could I achieve my goal by changing the title and byline treatment? That’s what I decided to attempt.

Some thinking was required.

Quantum Zoo thumbnail coverWhat sort of a title treatment should I attempt? Livli is a healer who works with magic, a magical hot spring, massage, and herbal treatments to cure her patients. Perhaps I could give the title a leafy texture to reflect this?

The cover for Quantum Zoo came to mind. I’d given its title a watery texture. Perhaps the same font, Orial, might even work well for Livli’s Gift. The curling ornaments of Orial had the right feeling for Livli, and the broader letters would provide a little more space to give the plant texture visibility.

I put all those elements together.

Livli's Gift cover with Orial titleAnd I didn’t like it. The colors were dull. The letters were too blocky. They’d looked graceful on the Quantum Zoo cover, but they seemed clunky on the Livli cover. I didn’t even bother to test the byline with the Orial-leaf treatment.

I was going to have to try something else.

But I still liked the idea of a leafy texture. Maybe I just needed to find leaves with a brighter green. I remembered a walk I’d taken through my neighborhood, photographing spring flowers and bright green foliage. I checked my files of photos and found the very thing!

But what font should I use?

Livli's Gift, Palatino with leaf textureMaybe I didn’t need to change the original font. Maybe the Palatino on the original cover would work just fine when a texture was added to it. Excited, I put all of these elements together.

Okay!

Now I felt like I was getting somewhere. I liked the brightness and the warmth of the green. I liked the allusion to life and growing things. It still wasn’t quite right, but I could work with this. Where would I go with it next? How might I manipulate it to make it fully right?

I looked at what I had, and looked at it some more. And then one of those inspirations that every artist loves struck me. What if I gave the Palatino font some of the curlicues that were part of the Orial font?

Perfect! It would be perfect!

I set to work again, slicing and dicing, moving this piece here, that piece there. I was knitting or crocheting with Photoshop, and it was fun!

Livli's Gift, lacy green titleWould this be it? Would this be the cover I was longing for?

Yes! It totally rocked! I was so excited. I’d done it!

With the peak so high, you know the fall would be low. And it was. As I looked at my work, I realized that despite the bright warmth of the green, combining it with black yielded the feel of the horror genre.

Oh, no!

Livli’s Gift hasn’t even one speck of horror. Readers who like horror would purchase the book and be disappointed and feel cheated. Readers who like warm and human fantasy with streamers of hope and joy – the perfect audience for Livli’s Gift – would never give it a chance.

Gloom buried me.

I recovered, naturally. But I let the whole project rest. I’d reached the “I got nothing” stage.

So Livli’s Gift kept its old cover for another year.

Then, just last week, I had another idea. The lacy version of Palatino I’d created really was perfect for Livli’s Gift. What if I filled it with a different texture? What if I filled it with a water texture? Livli worked with water far more extenisvely than she did with plants anyway!

With trepidation, I opened that year-old file to see what I could do.

Livli's Gift, water texture titleFilling the title with water was actually quite easy. The challenging work of creating a lacy Palatino was already done. I pasted in the water texture and looked at what I had.

Hmm. It was a nice idea, but it just wasn’t working. For whatever reason, the green leafy texture held together and didn’t confuse the eye. But the water texture didn’t behave similarly. It was too variegated, acting almost as a camouflage pattern, breaking up the edges of the letters and making the title hard to read.

I decided I would search for a better water texture.

After a night of sleep.

When I awoke in the morning, I had another idea. The original blue in the original cover had the bright, warm hue that I wanted. What if I simply used that, instead of pouring in a texture on the already complex lace of the altered font?

Livli's Gift, revised coverI selected the title, filled it with blue, deselected it, and took a look.

I noticed the byline was wider than the title. For no good reason. I modified it, so that the edges of the byline on the right and the left matched up precisely with the edges of the title. Much better!

I liked it.

The lacy Palatino has a pleasant liveliness to it. That particular hue of blue is indeed warm and bright. I hadn’t realized how much the unmodified Palatino creates a somber mood. Somber enough to overpower even the brightness of the warm blue.

Had I achieved my aim?

Livli's Gift, revised versus original coverI reduced the cover down to the tiny size of a thumbnail and studied the result.

Well, first off, on my computer screen, looking at the image in Photoshop, and looking at it on my own website, the original cover looks much more cheerful than it did on either Joel’s website or the Amazon site. That’s because both the other sites don’t render the blue accurately. Different sites really do render colors differently, unfortunately.

On the Kobo site, the cover for Perilous Chance suffers the most of all my covers. Instead of a clear and luminous indigo for the sky, it becomes a dingy purple. Ugh!

And even beyond the alterations caused by the hosting website, there are also all the variations caused by how each individual computer monitor is set. Each reader browsing online will see a slightly different view of each book cover in existence.

In fact, if we want to be through and precise, each reader’s brain and eyes will be calibrated slightly differently from every other reader’s. That way – considering every individual viewer – lies madness.

So, back to Livli’s Gift and how the thumbnail looks on my computer through my eyes. And it looks good. Not quite as nice as at the larger size, but still more cheerful than the original.

I double checked my assessment after I uploaded the new cover file on Amazon. There, the improvement was marked. At both the thumbnail size (which turns up in searches) and the slightly larger size that appears on the product page, the new version is much better than the old one. I’d say it’s a keeper.

Until I decide – in 5 years or so – that it’s time to revise the covers on my backlist again. 😀

To see the original building process for Livli’s cover:
Creating Livli’s Cover

For more about Kay Nielsen:
Kay Nielsen

And for more cover builds:
Building Star-drake’s Cover
Building Glory’s Cover
Building Wild’s Cover

 

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Brocade and Drawlooms

Brocade sampleBefore I learned about yunjin brocade, I’d assumed that my norns in Fate’s Door would weave upon a floor loom, something like the weaver I saw working in historic Williamsburg.

I hadn’t really thought through the process of weaving and the type of weaving necessary to the norns, creating the destiny of the world on their loom.

Floor looms can create beautiful cloth with some wonderful patterns. But the pattern has a limit to its complexity, and that pattern is repeated over and over again.

floor loom diagramThat would never work for the norns. While a larger theme or pattern might repeat through an era of history – the age of classical Greece or the time of republic Rome – the detail within that pattern would vary considerably. And when the world moved on, from ancient times to the Middle Ages, for example, the old pattern would vanish entirely, with a new one springing up.

A floor loom might have an array of heddles (which control the pattern of the weave), but once those heddles were threaded, the pattern for the fabric is unvarying.

My norns would need something more complex than a floor loom.

I read about dobby looms and jacquard looms and even modern power looms, but none of them possessed the kind of flexibility required.

Then I encountered yunjin brocade, woven in Nanjing, China for over 2,000 years. As I studied the textile samples, I saw that the patterns produced were more complex than anything I’d seen thus far.

Dragon robe of the Chinese emperor QianlongMore interesting still were examples of emperor’s robes woven by the piece on the yunjin looms and then assembled from those pieces. They were not cut from the woven silk. Rather each piece was woven to the correct shape and size, ready to be sewn to the other pieces after each came off the loom.

Even more important, the patterns in these pieces changed throughout each piece. The hem of the sleeve might have one pattern, the length of the sleeve another, and the shoulder yet another.

Essentially, an ever-changing tapestry could be created by this ancient and intricate method of weaving.

I had found the loom my norns would weave at.

But, wow, was that loom a monster!

It measured 18 feet long, 4.5 feet wide, 13 feet tall (5.6 meters long, 1.4 meters wide, and 4 meters tall). It takes at least two people to use it. The weaver sits before the loom on a bench, passing the weft threads through the long warp threads. The picker sits aloft, picking different patterns of draw strings to create the openings in the warp threads (called “sheds”) for the weaver to pass the weft threads through.

Yunjin brocade loom

Because the norns must weave a wider cloth – they have the whole world to include – a third person is needed: someone to throw the shuttle when a thread must pass the whole width of the cloth. The weaver’s arms are not long enough to both toss the shuttle at one side and catch it at the other.

But the need for three was perfect for my story. The fates – whether they be the Greek moirai or the Roman parcae or the Norse norns – are always three.

I would have my weaver, my patterner (the picker), and my shuttle-catcher.

And it was appropriate that the loom of fate – the loom that wove the births and deaths and deeds of all alive – should be a “monster.” Any device with so much power should have something monstrous about it.

The video below shows a yunjin drawloom in action, as well as explaining some of the other intricacies of the ancient craft of yunjin brocade.

I found it fascinating! (But you probably already knew that I would. 😀 )

For more about the world of Fate’s Door, see:
Cottage of the Norns
The Norns of Fate’s Door
The Baltic Sea
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece

For more about brocade and looms, see:
About Looms
About Brocade
About Yunjin
Saving Yunjin

 

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Cottage of the Norns

Sketch of the cottage of the norns

My first experience of the cottage where my norns in Fate’s Door live was through the eyes of Nerine, their handmaiden.

It’s the the end of winter, when the trees are leafless and the long grasses matted and dead. The stone cottage looks bleak without the flowering vines that adorn it in spring and summer and turn flaming red in autumn.

From the outside, the cottage seems a simple two-room affair. But when you go in . . . ah!

The front space isn’t two small rooms, but one large one, made bright with quilted orange window coverings and a rag rug of blues and greens. It’s sparsely furnished. Just a round table and chairs, a corner cabinet, pegs for cloaks, and a generous armoire for storage.

Hearth fireThe fire in the hearth on the left is usually banked, because the norns spend more time weaving than relaxing.

But where was the loom? The great loom on which fate was woven?

I followed Nerine as she passed through a door in the back wall. There was the loom!

It was huge and possessed a monstrous presence. Even Nerine – accustomed to it at this point in the story – could not ignore the loom’s power as she went about gathering threads and other supplies for the day’s weaving.

wool on shelfShe rooted amongst the shelves and cabinets along the walls, always aware of the loom.

I didn’t see the rest of the cottage until later – after an uncomfortable confrontation with the norns themselves.

Shaken, Nerine walked down a hallway leading from the back wall of the weaving chamber to her room. And then I knew that her room, as well as the chambers of the norns, all lay off that hallway.

At that point, I drew a quick sketch of the floorplan to keep the arrangement of the cottage straight in my mind.

I’d always imagined that I worked out the designs of the houses and palaces in my stories before I wrote the scenes that take place in them. After all, I drew a colossal plan for the cavern palace – the Lainkath – in Troll-magic before I wrote the scenes that took place there. Or so I remembered it.

But my memory was playing me false.

Lorelin entered the the great hall of that palace first, was served a meal in its luncheon parlor, played the spinet in its music room, and was shown her bedchamber, before I realized I needed to draw a map to keep it all straight.

So my experience of the cottage of the norns is, in fact, typical.

I see the places in my stories through my characters’ eyes first. And then – when necessary – I draw maps and floorplans to make sure the rooms stay in the right places as I write subsequent scenes. 😀

I drew a tidier floorplan to show the layout of the norns’ cottage to you (below), as well as a sketch of the cottage as it appears to Nerine in the second scene of the book Fate’s Door (above).

Floorplan of the norns' cottage

For more about Nerine’s world, see:
The Norns of Fate’s Door
The Baltic Sea
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean

 

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The Norns of Fate’s Door

The Three Moirai by Johann Gottfried Schadow

The three Fates appeared in many of the mythologies of ancient Europe. They were often envisioned as goddesses weaving on a loom, the tapestry thus created shaping the destinies of both mortals and gods.

The Spinner by William-Adolphe BouguereauThe ancient Greeks had the three Moirai. The word moira meant portion or share or lot of booty or treasure, and over time came to refer to one’s portion or lot in life, one’s fate.

Clotho, the spinner, spun the thread of life, the animating energy that gifted mortal and immortal with awareness and existence. She was also said to be a singer, singing of the things that are, the present.

Lachesis was the allotter or the drawer of lots, and she measured the thread of life meted out to each individual with her measuring rod. The beginning mark signified birth, while the ending mark was death. When she joined her sisters in song, she sang of the things that were, the past.

Atropos was “the unturning one,” also called inexorable or inevitable. She chose the nature of each person’s death, and when that dread moment arrived, cut the thread of life with her knife. She sang of the things that would be, the future.

The ancient Romans had their own version of the Fates: the Parcae, the goddesses of destiny.

The Parcae by Alfred AgacheNona, named after the ninth month of pregnancy, spun the thread of life. Decima, also revered as the goddess of childbirth, measured the thread of life with her rod. And Morta, the “Dead One,” chose the manner of each indiviual’s death and cut the thread of life.

It’s worth noting the slightly different connotations connected to “destiny” versus “fate.” Fate implies that the events of an individual’s life are ordered, inevitable, and unavoidable. While destiny refers to the finality of events as they have worked themselves out through the passage of time.

I can’t help wondering if the Romans conceived of a little “wiggle room” being available to the individual in the form of choice, where the Greeks may have believed that their lives were entirely predestined. I don’t have the answer to that question, but the Fates I portray in Fate’s Door adhere more to the Roman ideal of destiny than the Greek one of fate.

The Norns by Johannes GehrtsGiven that my story – Fate’s Door – is set in the 4th century BC, when the Hellene culture was ascendant, why didn’t I use the Greek personifications of the Fates? Why did I chose the Norse Norns instead?

Perhaps the most honest answer is simply that the Greek Morai felt wrong for the roles in Fate’s Door, but there were a few more elements that had bearing on my creative vision.

For one, the Greek Morai are often portrayed as living in some desolate region far from the bounds of civilization. A wilderness at the foot of craggy mountains on the edge of the world. Or a dry and desert region below a looming cliff of black rock. They certainly lived nowhere near Mount Olympus.

If my Fates dwelt in the far north, as I envisioned them, then wouldn’t the mythologies of the Nordic peoples influence their manifestation?

The Hellenes might envision them as the Morai and speak of them as Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. But just as the Keltoi developed a different vision for Hermes and called him Lugh, so the northern Scandians would have their own idea of the Fates. The Norns might easily conform more closely to the Scandian ideal, even while the Greeks pursued their own vision.

My other reason for choosing the Norse Norns is more subtle, having to do with the cosmology of my story, and how I mapped the mythologies of the ancient world onto the history of that world.

I imagine the greater deities such as Zeus and Athena as arising from the cultural consciousness of the times. They possess more definition and permanence than the lesser demi-gods and nature spirits representing specific localities, such as the the Hippocrene Springs, or cultural concepts such as loyalty and honor.

Thus, while Zeus is always Zeus, the naiad of the Hippocrene Springs merely holds that role for a limited time, and passes on to another station or post when she is ready for a change.

Sea spirits (nereides), tree spirits (dryads), mountain spirits (oreads) and more animated the cosmos of the ancients.

A Naiad by John William Waterhouse

My Fates are time spirits, going back to the earliest of eras when sewing needles were invented in 19,000 BC in pre-historic France, or even earlier when thread was created from flax in 36,000 BC in Russia-to-be.

The very first weaver of destiny was a goddess, Mother Holle, working at a primitive ground loom. But as humanity acquired greater sophistication, and their world view grew more complex, Mother Holle acquired helpers – spirits of time, the Norns – and eventually abdicated her role to her helpers entirely.

As humans developed better weaving tools, the Norns benefited as well. Although the task of transferring the tapestry of the world from a ground loom to a vertical loom must have been formidable indeed.

vintage and ancient scissorsBecause my Norns are spirits of time, they have some access to both the past and the future. Some of their materials, such as pivoting scissors instead of spring scissors, come from the future, as does the complex brocade loom that they are using when Nerine arrives.

Of course, my Norns don’t conform exactly to the Norse Urthr (“fate”), Verthandi (“in the making”), and Skuld (“debt” or “future”).

Instead, I have Tynghed (derived from the Welsh “destiny”), Eowys (Anglo-Saxon “horse-wise”), and Orroch (Early English “oar”). I suspect that Urthr, Verthandi, and Skuld might have served the great loom of fate sometime after my story takes place, in the centuries when the Roman Empire dominated and the Germanic tribes – with their Norse dieties – nibbled at the Roman borders.

But like their later counterparts, my Tynghed, Eowys, and Orroch draw water from the Well of Fate, with which to water the World Tree, and they watch the visions of destiny in the Well’s dark magic.

Fate by Alphonse Mucha

For more about the world of Fate’s Door, see:
The Baltic Sea
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean

For more about the three Fates, see:
The Moirai
The Parcae
The Norns

 

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How I Wrote and RE-WROTE Cover Copy for My Novel

How to Write Fiction Sales Copy by Dean Wesley SmithI recently read How to Write Fiction Sales Copy by Dean Wesley Smith, and it is excellent. Excellent! I can’t say enough good things about it.

In the course of writing “blurbs” or cover copy for my own stories, I’ve perused a lot of how-to advice for same. Some advice proved helpful. (And I needed a lot of help! Marketing does not come naturally to me.) Some of it sounded reasonable, but when I followed the instructions, I generated some of the worst copy of my life. And most of the advice available was geared toward non-fiction.

But Dean has succeeded in bottling lightning – or come very close to it, indeed.

In How to Write Fiction Sales Copy, he lays out two general guiding principles and then proceeds to describe seven patterns or “formulas” – the structural bones – for writing sales copy. He includes numerous examples (for real stories destined for the marketplace) illustrating each approach.

I learn best by example, so this was pure gold for me.

But the bottled lightning? After reading the 32 example blurbs, I wanted to go buy and read every single story they presented. Every single one! Now that’s successful sales copy!

lightning

TWO FOUNDATIONAL PRINCIPLES

So what are Dean’s two guiding principles? Because I’ve taken workshops taught by him, I’d heard them before, and blogged about them, too. But in the interests making this post about cover copy complete, I’ll restate them.

1 • Stay out of the story’s plot.

Readers read a book to experience the plot in all its magnificence, told with all the skill that the storyteller can manifest. Regurgitating the plot in the sales copy will do nothing but wipe the wonder from it. It certainly won’t sell the story. There are better ways.

How do you know you are down in the plot? Your copy will have a lot of what boils down to “and then this happened.”

If you see a lot of “and then this happened,” you’ve done it wrong. Delete and start over.

If you’ve got a little dash of “and then this happened,” figure out how to get rid of it. The rest of your copy might be good.

Writing blurbs that sink into the plot of my story is my great weakness. I cannot tell you how many times I solicited feedback in Dean’s first workshop, “Pitches and Blurbs,” only to be told: “Nope. You’re down in the plot again.”

I must always check my blurbs for this problem.

2 • Use active verbs; avoid the passive voice like the plague.

That means avoiding verb constructions that require “is,” was,” “had,” “have,” and the like.

I’m lucky enough to possess a knack for avoiding passive verbs when I write sales copy. Occasionally an “is” sneaks by me, but that’s rare. However, most fiction writers, when they start writing sales copy, fall into either the trap of focusing on the plot of their stories, or the trap of using passive verbs, or both.

And no matter how agile I am at avoiding passive verbs, my tendency to dive into the plot still kills my blurbs just as dead.

Those are Dean’s two principles, and they are critically important, but it was his “formulas” and examples that really brought my understanding to a new level.

DEAN WESLEY SMITH’S BASIC BLURB PATTERN

In this blog post, I thought I’d talk about the first formula presented in How to Write Fiction Sales Copy and show…

Kay Nielsen art depicting a lassie aback a north-bear…not only how I used it to improve the sales copy for my novel Troll-magic, but the entire journey that particular blurb has traveled: from its first incarnation (when I knew exactly nothing about writing sales copy), through my poor first stabs at using copywriting principles, and on to my latest version, created after reading How to Write Fiction Sales Copy.

At the very least, you’ll get a good laugh at the absurdity of my student efforts. But I hope you’ll also learn a little something.

So what is the basic blurb pattern?

Paragraph 1: Introduce the protagonist and/or the world. Nail the genre, if at all possible.
Paragraph 2: Introduce the story problem. Limit yourself to the content of the first page of a short story, the first scene of a novella, or the first chapter of a novel.
Paragraph 3: Raise the stakes.
Paragraph 4: State why the reader wants to read the story, using largely genre tags or keywords.

Now, that is too abstract for me. I’m sure there are those of you who could go on swimmingly from there, but I am not among that lucky company, alas.

But no troll-witch permits...

AN EXAMPLE

So, to use an example, let’s look at each paragraph of the most recent, updated blurb for Troll-magic.

North-land spellcasters who summon excessive power transform into trolls – potent, grotesque, and hungry for control.

This first paragraph introduces the world – a fantasy world featuring spellcasters and trolls and malevolent magic – and identifies the genre.

Prince Kellor, cursed by the troll-witch Mandine to live as a north-bear, wrestles with the challenges of his beast form. Pain wracks his body. Unpredictable rages blur his mind. And his thoughts spin out of all sense, confusing his search for the loopholes that every curse possesses.

This second paragraph introduces the protagonist and his problem. Prince Kellor suffers from a nasty curse. Some way of escaping from it exists, but Kellor doesn’t know what that might be.

His curse turns on the choices of his childhood friend Elle. She once shared Kellor’s idyllic rambles through the wilderlands. She now loves all things musical. Might Kellor persuade her to neglect her own life and save his? Should he?

Troll-magic is not only a novel, but a l-o-n-g novel, told with five point-of-view characters, although largely from the vantages of Kellor and Elle. So this paragraph is really just an extension of the blurb pattern’s “paragraph 2.” It introduces Elle as key to solving Kellor’s predicament.

But no troll-witch permits her prey to escape with ease. The illusory loopholes in Mandine’s curse all twist back to its entombing heart.

Paragraph 3 raises the stakes. In other words: Not so fast, Kellor! Most curses have loopholes, but not this one. Not really.

J.M. Ney Grimm tells a lyrical Beauty and the Beast tale, rife with moments of shining glory and dark magnificence, tumbling toward a lethal battle of wills and the impossible choices forced by clashing loyalties.

Paragraph 4 tells the reader that Troll-magic is a beauty-and-the-beast type story, that its events produce feelings of exaltation in the reader, that its theme deals with catch-22 choices and stubborn frenemies, and that its prose is well-crafted.

(Many of my readers comment on my “lyrical prose” and remark that certain events in my stories evoke such strong feelings of sheer joy that they’re transported and amazed. So I include phrases that touch on those elements. They are reasons to read my work.)

No doubt this is far from a perfect blurb. I’m still learning. But you can see Dean’s formula for his Basic Blurb Pattern at work. And, as you’ll discover when you read on, this is far better than any blurb for Troll-magic that I’d produced before.

"Why had he never noticed...

MY ATTEMPT TO CHEAT FATE

Now let’s visit my first ghastly stab at a blurb for Troll-magic, which surely deserved better than I was able to give it at the time.

“In short, she was the friend from his childhood . . . and yet not his old friend: taller, hints of curves. Why had he never noticed she was beautiful before? All his planned introductions slipped away.”

Kellor’s a prince in trouble. Lorelin’s a musician trapped by bucolic traditions. Both must defy a troll-witch’s curse while navigating a maze of hidden secrets.

So what the heck was that?

It’s not really a blurb at all, but merely an excerpt from Chapter 6 of the novel!

I was so utterly clueless – and I knew I was clueless – that I didn’t even try to write sales copy. I picked a delightful moment on the story, quoted from the manuscript, and then added a brief gloss following the quote.

Which meant I spoiled that moment for the reader, because it won’t be fresh for him or her when those three sentences arrive. And I shirked the job that belongs squarely in the publisher’s court.

Many books that go through traditional publishing never receive the attention of the sales force, and thus the sales copy is written by a book’s acquiring editor or even the intern who read the manuscript. And sometimes that person does just what I did: quotes from the story and avoids writing any copy at all.

But that’s not the way to interest readers in a book. And I chose the indie publishing route because I wanted to do better than the mediocre job often done by traditional publishing for novels written by midlist authors.

Just because I’m bad at the marketing angle doesn’t excuse me from learning how to do it properly and giving my books the marketing support that all books need.

Fighting against a nightmare...

MY STUDENT VERSION OF THE BLURB

So let’s look at what I developed after my first class on writing sales copy for fiction.

Fighting against a nightmare pales beside fighting for a dream.

An accursed prince and her own longing for music challenge Lorelin to do both.

But tradition and a hidden foe stand squarely in her way. How do you make dreams real when vision fails, allies undermine you, and all roads toward hope twist awry?

Can courage, honor, and loyalty prevail against a troll-witch’s potent curse?

Set within her enchanted North-lands, J.M. Ney-Grimm’s new take on an old Norse folk tale pits distorted malice against inner wisdom and grit.

Courage, honor, and loyalty...

WHY IT FAILED

First off, it is an actual blurb, not a mere pretense at one. Score one for Ney-Grimm!

The first line is an excellent hook. Dreams and nightmares are emotion-laden words. Nearly everyone has awakened from a nightmare with pounding heart and sweat-drenched brow, because the monster had caught them, the villain had pulled the trigger, or the zombie’s teeth had sunk into their flesh.

And most of us have cherished heartfelt dreams that meant everything to us.

Pairing the two concepts – fighting against a nightmare, fighting for a dream – let’s just say that it pleases me, lest I toot my own horn too loudly. 😉

The last paragraph also heads in the right direction. It lets the potential reader know that I’ve written many stories set in my North-lands, which is a fanatsy milieu. It indicates that the story is a retelling of an old Norse folk tale. Although, a caveat: many more readers will be familiar with Beauty and the Beast than know of Norse folk tales. And the last phrases tell the reader that the theme treats of inner strengths pitted against fear-inducing malevolence.

The paragraph works, but it could be much stronger.

The rest of the blurb is hopelessly vague. Clearly I was reacting to my known tendency of drowning in plot by flying so far above it that no one can figure out anything at all about my story.

That was certainly the reaction of my writers group when I asked their feedback.

Beyond the fact that Troll-magic featured a cursed prince and a musical country girl, the only certainty was that the story possessed a villain. But most stories have a villain – or at least an antagonist – so what is special about this one?

This was a blurb that failed to deliver the goods.

Elle quote

HELP FROM MY WRITERS GROUP

In the winter of 2013, I helped form a writers group with other indies who were interested in focusing on the publishing side of indie pubbing one’s books. We looked at one another’s book covers and gave feedback. We assessed our story openings for reader appeal and gave feedback. We brainstormed ways to let readers know that our stories existed.

And – writer by writer – we worked on cover copy.

When it was my turn, my fellow writers were incredibly generous. Every single one of them was better at cover copy than I was, and they each not only read Troll-magic (you do remember I said it was l-o-n-g, right?), but they wrote their own version of cover copy for it. Some of them wrote two or three versions! Super wonderful folk!

I studied each version, learned from them all, and then tried to produce my own improved version.

The idea was not to lean on one another permanently, but to learn and get better at the various skills necessary to publish a book well.

...from cool pine forests...

AFTER THE HELP

North-land spellcasters who wield excessive power transform into trolls – potent, twisted, and hungry for dominance.

Prince Kellor, cursed by a troll-witch to live as a north-bear, wrestles with the challenges of a beast’s form. He sees his childhood friend Elle as the key to his escape.

But charming Elle will be no easy task. Traversing that delicate passage between adolescence and adulthood, she struggles to balance family loyalty against her passion for music.

In this epic adventure across a stunning landscape, from cool pine forests to an icy pinnacle of basalt so real it leaves you shivering, Elle and Kellor must summon essential wisdom and grit to prevail against a troll-witch’s malice in a lethal battle of wills.

Fighting against a nightmare pales beside fighting for a dream.

THE GOOD AND THE BAD

If you compare the first two sentences od this version to my latest version, you’ll see that they are the same. They introduce the world, Prince Kellor, and his dire problem well.

But Elle appears as a means to an end, rather than an important POV character in her own right. And we still don’t know – from content of this blurb – what sort of a story this is and what exactly Kellor and Elle are trying to do, other than defeat the villain. Or prevent the villain from winning.

There is no clear statement of the stakes, let alone a raising of them.

I kept that blurb for a long time, however, because it was better than what I’d managed before. My skills at blurb writing were improving, but I still had more to learn.

The illusory loopholes...

DRAFTING SALES COPY

Finally, this August of 2015, Dean Wesley Smith wrote a series of detailed blog posts on the topic of writing sales copy for fiction, and it was as though the proverbial curtain were drawn back before my eyes. I read and re-read those blog posts. I took copious notes. When Dean turned those blog posts into a book, I bought it and reviewed the material.

And when I wrote the copy for my five new books – released November 12 – I followed the guidelines outlined in that book. I could see that they were much, much better than cover copy I’d developed before.

Then and there, I vowed to return to my backlist, once the new books were well launched.

Because the blurb for Troll-magic struck me as the worst of all the blurbs written B.C. (before How to Write Fiction Sales Copy), I tackled it first.

One thing I’ve learned through all my years of struggling with copy is that I have to wrestle a draft into shape first, using all my know-how (such as it is at the time), and then let that draft sit overnight. If I’ve done my work properly, a lot of that draft will be right on target.

And the next day, I’ll be able to see which parts are good, which parts need tweaking, and which parts should be ditched completely.

I cannot see any of this without a night’s sleep between draft and revision.

She once shared...

THE ALMOST-RIGHT VERSION

The following was my first draft for Troll-magic’s updated blurb.

Just to be clear, it’s not what first came from my pen. My working pages include copious “notes to self” about what I was aiming for, numerous sentences that I jot down to capture an idea and then cross out, even more paragraphs with lines drawn through phrases, other phrases inserted, and so on.

My blurb writing process is messy. It almost has to be.

So when I say, “first draft,” I mean what I hammered out over 6 hours of work!

Anyway, here it is!

North-land spellcasters who summon excessive power transform into trolls – potent, grotesque, and hungry for dominance.

Prince Kellor, cursed by the troll-witch Mandine to live as a north-bear, wrestles with the challenges of a beast’s form. Maddened by pain, his thoughts spin out of all sense. Rage shakes him unpredictably. And confusion dogs his search for one of the loopholes that every curse possesses.

His curse turns on the choices of his childhood friend Elle. She once shared Kellor’s wilderland rambles. She now loves all things musical and struggles against the lack of opportunity in her bucolic surroundings.

But no troll-witch permits her prey to escape with ease. The illusory loopholes in Mandine’s curse twist back into its dark heart. Unless Kellor unravels a paradox. Unless Elle performs the impossible.

A lyrically told Beauty and the Beast story in which distorted malice tests inner wisdom and essential grit.

That felt almost right to me. Almost, but not quite.

North-land spellcasters who...

WHAT NEEDED TO CHANGE

After I’d slept, I knew what needed to change.

First issue: “hungry for dominance.” The phrase inched too close to what one might find in steamy romance. It strikes the wrong note for epic fantasy with a thread of sweet romance running through it. I’d wanted to avoid the word “control,” because it seemed too modern for my Steam Age setting, and I still wouldn’t use the term in just this way within the story.

But sales copy can stand to be a little less scrupulous about anachronisms than can the story itself. And the issue with many trolls in my North-lands is one of control, although they would not say it that way.

So “hungry for dominance” became “hungry for control.”

Second issue: the string of sentences starting with “Maddened by pain,” isn’t punchy enough.

I have to strike a careful balance with this. Marketing copy needs to have impact. It is usually punchy and short. I like to follow that recommendation, but I also need to present a hint of the lyricism that surfaces here and there within my stories and is a reason why readers read my books.

But the “Maddened by pain” sequence is not lyrical. It’s merely dragged out and inefficient. I changed it to: “Pain wracks his body. Unpredictable rages blur his mind. And his thoughts spin out of all sense, confusing his search for the loopholes that every curse possesses.”

Third issue: “…and struggles against the lack of opportunity in her bucolic surroundings.”

No. Just, no. We need to focus on what lies between Elle and Kellor, rather than haring off on Elle’s issues. Yes, she has them. But the blurb is not the place to explore them. Blurbs need to stay tightly focused.

Fourth issue: “Unless Kellor unravels a paradox. Unless Elle performs the impossible.”

I strayed into plot with those remarks. Or else I was gilding the lily in my raising of the stakes. Cut!

Fifth issue: “A lyrically told Beauty and the Beast story in which distorted malice tests inner wisdom and essential grit.”

The first phrase is right on target, but everything after “in which” is vague and doesn’t tell the prospective reader why he or she will enjoy the book. It needs to go further than it does.

Rife with moments...

THE UPDATED BLURB

We saw the fully updated blurb at the beginning of this post, with my commentary between each paragraph.

Let’s look at it without those interruptions.

North-land spellcasters who summon excessive power transform into trolls – potent, grotesque, and hungry for control.

Prince Kellor, cursed by the troll-witch Mandine to live as a north-bear, wrestles with the challenges of his beast form. Pain wracks his body. Unpredictable rages blur his mind. And his thoughts spin out of all sense, confusing his search for the loopholes that every curse possesses.

His curse turns on the choices of his childhood friend Elle. She once shared Kellor’s idyllic rambles through the wilderlands. She now loves all things musical. Might Kellor persuade her to neglect her own life and save his? Should he?

But no troll-witch permits her prey to escape with ease. The illusory loopholes in Mandine’s curse all twist back to its entombing heart.

J.M. Ney Grimm tells a lyrical Beauty and the Beast tale, rife with moments of shining glory and dark magnificence, tumbling toward a lethal battle of wills and the impossible choices forced by clashing loyalties.

Better, don’t you think?

What has your experience with cover copy been like? As a reader, have you ever bought a book because of its sales copy? As a writer, do you struggle with writing it? Or does it come naturally to you? (It does for some, just not me!)

I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

For more about cover copy, see:
Cover Copy Primer
Eyes Glaze Over? Never!

Be aware that these earlier posts will carry you back in time with me on my journey through writing sales copy. The principles I put forward are sound, but my ability to execute them grows ever less, the farther back in time you go. 😀

A few places to find How to Write Fiction Sales Copy:
Amazon I B&N I Kobo

And few places to find Troll-magic:
Amazon I B&N I iTunes I Kobo I Smashwords

 

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The Baltic Sea

Baltic Sea near KarklėThe Baltic Sea caused me all kinds of trouble in my writing of Fate’s Door.

First of all came the problem of what to call the dang thing.

I ran into this issue throughout the entire novel. The names from antiquity that get quoted everywhere are the ancient Roman names. There was the Mare Nostrum (Mediterranean) and the trireme (Greek trieres) and Karthago versus Karkhedon.

In some cases, I simply went with modern usage. Carthage. Why be unnecessarily obscure?

But Fate’s Door is set during the Hellenistic era when the ancient Greek world view dominated the Mediterranean. I found I often wanted the Hellene name for a thing. I usually had to dig for it. Lapadoússa, Európi, the Hyrcanian Sea, and so on.

But no matter how much digging I did, I could not find the Hellene name for the Baltic, if there even was one.

Reading about the etymology of “Baltic,” I could see that some version of “balt-” went back through many, many centuries. There was belt, used for two of the Danish Straits (The Belts). A legendary island (in the Baltic?) was named by Pliny (1st century AD) as Baltia. Pytheas (4th century BC – the time of Fate’s Door) named an island Basilia.

Odin's last words to BaldrOther scholars insist that the name originates from the Indo-European root bhel meaning “white” or “fair.” A few Swedish historians believe it derives from the god Balder of Norse mythology.

But I noticed that the etymology of Balder possesses as confused a history as does Baltic. Baldr, baldor, baltas, balths.

I read up on the religious beliefs of the ancient Scandinavian peoples.

They seem to have venerated a sun mother, a spear god, a sword god, and an axe god, who later became Ullin (Mother Holle), Othinn (Odin), Ingr (Freyr), and Thunrar (Thor). Who is to say that there might not have been a forerunner of Balder as well?

Nerine's voyage on the Baltic SeaI decided to go with Balder’s Sea.

But naming this northerly body of water was only the beginning of my tussle with the Baltic.

I’d estimated that my protagonist Nerine departed Mount Olympus around June 7. Her journey across Europe was roughly 1300 miles, which meant that it would take her 87 days. That is, she would arrive on the southern shore of the Baltic on September 2. Was that too late for her final push north?

When did the sun rise and set in Gdansk in September? What about Kemi in Finland? When did the Baltic Sea ice over?

Baltic Sea, March 2000, NASAWhy didn’t I ask these questions earlier? Aack!

Fortunately, my belated research gave me answers that meant I didn’t have to change the dates for Nerine’s departure.

In Gdansk, the sun rises at 5:54 AM on September 2 and sets at 7:35 PM. That’s 13.5 hours of daylight, plenty of time for travelling.

One more question bore on the answers to those above. Just how was Nerine getting from the southern shore to the northern one?

It’s clear that the people of ancient Scandinavia had already mastered boat building. The Gutones (the ancient Goths) in what would eventually become Poland came from either the island of Gotland or from Sweden by boat. All the coastal settlements traded extensively, and that trade arrived by sea. The mountainous terrain of Scandinavia made travel by land very difficult and chancy.

Badekunda stone shipThe cultural emphasis of the ancient Scandinavians on ships is reflected in a preoccupation with sea vessels. Stones outlining the shape of a ship surrounded the old burial mounds, symbolic ships to carry the dead into the afterlife. Their religious images depict the sun mother helped into the morning ship by a magical fish, carried past noon by a powerful sun horse and delivered to the evening ship, where a serpent helps the sun settle.

So Nerine would be going north by boat. But what type of a boat?

The earliest archaeological evidence we have for the vessels of ancient Scandinavia are the ships of Nydam Mose. The site was a sacred lake in the Iron Age, but became a peat bog, an excellent environment for preserving ship timbers. Archaeological digs unearthed three ships there, the largest and oldest made of oak.

Nydamboat.2

The oak ship has been dated to 310 or 320 AD, a good 600 years later than the time of Fate’s Door. But I suspected that this ship could provide clues about the earlier boats.

For one thing, it did not have a sail, but was propelled by 30 oarsmen. That seemed particularly significant, since the later Viking ships did have sails, and its contemporaneous ships of the Mediterranean also possessed sails.

clinker versus carvelThe Nydam Mose ship was clinker built. That is, the planks of the hull overlapped and were riveted together with woolen cloth to seal the seam. It would have been a significant innovation, if the Bronze Age vessels shared that design. Clinker ships are lighter and they can bend and flex, meaning that they withstand the battering of a storm-driven sea intact.

Interesting as I find these details, they weren’t directly pertinent to my story. How fast did the ship move, and how long would it take to row one from Gdansk, Poland to Kemi, Finland?

The oak ship of Nydam Mose was 75 feet long (23 meters) and 13 feet wide (4 meters). It was very close in size to the later Viking ships. And we know how fast the Viking ships were, both under sail and under oar. I would use the oar-driven speed for Nerine’s ship, the Saiwsgaitsa: between 5 and 6 knots (5.75 mph – 6.9 mph).

Nydam Mose ship, interior view

The Viking ships routinely travelled 75 miles per day, favorable winds or no.

At 6 mph, the Saiwsgaitsa would require 12.5 hours to go that far.

I couldn’t imagine the Gutonic oarsmen lingering in camp on shore. They were tough and phlegmatic. They’d be up before the dawn and on the water the moment the sky was light enough to see. And they’d make camp in the evening with just enough daylight remaining to permit the pegging of tents and the gathering of firewood. 12.5 hours was enough.

With 1100 miles to row, the sea journey would take 2 weeks. They’d make the northern shore by September 17.

On September 17, the sun rises in Kemi at 6:47 AM and sets at 7:44 PM. That’s just under 13 hours of daylight. The seafarers would be making a quick turnaround! They needed to get back south before the days grew too short.

The frozen Baltic SeaAnd before ice choked the water.

Ice begins to form in the northernmost reaches of the Baltic in mid-November. By late February, the entire northern half of the sea is frozen, with the peak of the ice falling in March. The thaw begins in April. By June, all of the ice has melted.

Just as experimental archaeologists made reconstructions of ancient Hellene merchant ships and ancient triremes, so did they create a reconstruction of the oak Nydam Mose ship. I wasn’t able to find a cool video of their venture, but in the course of my research on the ancient North, I discovered a wonderful video about Bronze Age Scandinavia.

At the time of Fate’s Door, the Bronze Age has just turned to the early Iron Age, but the dividing line between one era and the next is often much sharper in the history books than it is in the experience of the people who live through the change. I suspect that many facets of Bronze Age Scandinavia persisted into the first century of the Iron Age.

So take a look at these vignettes from the lands around the ancient Baltic Sea.

For more about Nerine’s world, see:
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean
Ground Looms

For more about the ships of Nydam Mose, see:
Nydam Mose on Flickr
Nydam Mose on Wikipedia
The Nydam Ships on NAVIS
The Nordic Bronze Age

 

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