Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What is the deal with CAPITAL letters on so many book covers these days?

I know I’m going to step on some toes with this (even with some of the crew here at Type M), but dang it, I’m getting a bit tired of seeing entire book covers with nothing but capital letters for their front cover copy. (I’m also getting tired of seeing the slab-type fonts that are being used more and more these days, but that’s another beef for another post.)

Having designed many book covers myself, I know why this is happening. If you’re a big-time author, your books have been done this way for years. In that case, it's to alert everyone within 100 feet in a bookstore that JOE BLOW’S latest book is out. I get that. Add this to the fact that publishers like having an author's books display a certain “family look” — presumably so readers can identify them more quickly — and I personally feel as if I’m being shouted at when I walk into a book store. If your store has a James Patterson section (and many do these days), go there and you’ll instantly see what I mean.

Caps are a bit of a slam dunk design-wise. They'’e less problematic to set. They certainly attract notice more quickly, especially if they're in a neon colour, are embossed, or one of the metallic colours is used. They practically emit an audible “LOOK AT ME!” when executed that way.

When a publisher also makes the author's name bigger than the title of the book, you know the author is considered a Big Deal. I actually once overheard a bookstore browser say to his wife while holding up one of these books, “Honey, do you know this author? She must be important.” (Honest!) After the man walked away with the book in his mitt, I noticed two things about the book’s cover: it was rather thick (a good 2") and the author’s name took up more than half of the real estate. I mean it was H-U-G-E. And that’s sort of what got me thinking about this trend.

Now I’m on record here as saying that a book’s cover should also act as a poster for the book. From that viewpoint, it makes sense to use caps, especially when you consider that many people only look at book covers online where the images are pretty darned small. Caps definitely do help get the critical things across.

However, with some thought and a good dash of design knowledge and experience, a very successful cover can be worked out that has some design flair and gets the promotional job done — and doesn’t use caps.

Maybe the problem is publishers being more interested in keeping costs down. Lots of covers now use stock photos as a matter of course because commissioned photography and (especially) illustrations are a lot more expensive. If the design department has a few slab fonts (or “heavy” cuts of other serif or sans serif fonts) that do the job for them, why not just throw these on, squeeze a small moody or otherwise appropriate stock photo in at the bottom, and you've got another cover done with time to do two more before you knock off for lunch.

Problem is, the book will eventually wind up faced on a bookshelf with any number of other titles that have similar covers (like in the JUST OUT section). Trouble is you’ve completely shot your bolt and there’s no way to amp up anything that would distinguish your cover from any of the others following this design trend.

Like most authors, I’ve spent countless hours in bookstores. In watching shoppers interact with books, I would still put money down on a book with a really interesting, well-designed cover, coupled with an intriguing title and some solid back cover or inside flap copy. Browsers consistently pick up these kinds of books. They don’t shout; they just catch your eye with something that piques your interest.

Maybe less should be the new more.

Monday, July 27, 2015

On the Bench

After my last post, Rick was kind enough to say he would be interested to hear more about my experience of being a Justice of the Peace, so here goes.

I don't know if the Canadian and American courts do this, but in Scotland and England there are lay magistrates in the lowest courts who aren't legally qualified but make judgements in the cases presented. We're given training of course, and we sit 'on the bench', as the saying is, with a legally-qualified clerk in attendance to stop us doing things like pronouncing the death penalty for double parking – just kidding, even the Supreme Court in Britain can't do that!

In England, every case, right up to murder, is brought before a panel of magistrates who decide if it might merit a higher sentence than they are allowed to impose, and pass it on up to the higher courts. If necessary.

It would be quite exciting to deal with major cases, but it doesn't happen here. In Scotland we have a completely separate system – we Scots just like to be different – and it is a prosecutor instead who decides which court is appropriate for a trial; murder, for instance, would go straight to the High Court.

So the cases I tried were always minor – parking fines,  breaches of the peace, petty theft, minor assaults – and at this level I sat in judgement alone.

It's an awesome responsibility. I had powers up to a fourteen-day prison sentence, though I don't think I gave that more than a couple of times in ten years. Generally what we tried to do was to impose a sentence that might make repeat offending less likely – community service, anger management course, that sort of thing – but inevitably there were the faces that popped up regularly and trying to find constructive ways of dealing with them was a challenge.

They were often very sad cases, alcoholics or addicts. One will always stick in my mind, a lady with a drink problem who was constantly in trouble; any court where Jean didn't appear was a good court. On one particular occasion she stood in the dock looking quite dreadful and I said delicately to her long-suffering defence solicitor, 'Is your client – er – fit to plead?' – meaning, 'Is she so drunk she won't understand what's going on?'

However, he beamed at me. 'As Your Honour and I both know this has sometimes been a problem, but I'm happy to say that my client is more fit to plead than I have seen her for a very long time.'

At which point Jean glared at me. 'Are ye sayin' am I drunk? I'm no' drunk. I wish I was – I'd be feeling a helluva lot better now.'

One of the most serious challenges for a JP is keeping your face straight.

But it was a wonderful education for a crime writer and no, Rick, it was really never boring, except perhaps when I was running through postal pleas for speeding to determine levels of fine and number of points, and even then the young defence agents kept me amused. The rule about lawyers being pompous simply doesn't apply to lawyers with a crminal practice.

The trials were utterly fascinating. Even in these small cases, all human life is there and there were some that Chekov could have used in a short story – for instance the love triangle where two men had got into a fight over a woman.

She had apparently been cheating on her partner with another man and I waited with some interest to see the  object of their desire. In fact, she was a wee dumpy woman in her late fifties with a bad perm and the 'other man' when he appeared was just short of eighty, walking with a stick and wearing a kilt. It was a timely reminder that passion belongs not only to the young.

The cases, of course, were so minor that they were no use as inspiration for a plot, but the chance to observe human interactions and behaviour under stress from an almost 'fly-on-the-wall' position was a priceless opportunity for a writer and I learned a huge amount about people.

It was also a wonderful way to learn about police procedure and indeed it was from the women officers who policed my court that the idea of my own DI Fleming developed. They were all very normal working women with partners and children and perhaps ageing parents to cope with as well as a very demanding job, and I wanted to create a detective who wasn't a dysfunctional loner with a drink problem, a string of lovers and contempt for any sort of authority – I wanted her to be the woman you would meet if you went down the local nick.

I owe a lot to my experience and I was sad to give it up, but I was leaving the court area when my husband retired and I didn't want to start again under a system that was bound to be slightly different – especially since my son is a criminal defence solicitor here (now advocate)  and it could be a bit awkward – 'Mum, you never listen to a word I say...'

Sorry, I've rambled on! It was such an interesting time for me, so I hope some of you, particularly Rick, may have found it interesting too.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Church of the Writer

Last Sunday I was drinking beers with some buddies and one of them asked if I had read the Ernest Hemingway book on writing. I said that I had, and we talked about the letters Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald shared about writing. Our conversation turned to discuss my writing process since I was the only one at the table who has been published. Another asked where my ideas came from. I'm afraid I disappointed my fellow beer drinkers when my answers turned flip. I don't like to talk about the writing process because it's easier to talk about writing than it is to write. When asked how do I write, meaning how do I approach the daunting task of writing, I replied that I sit at the keyboard and start writing. I don't regard where I write as a sacred space; I tend to think of it as a sausage machine. There's a lot of work to be done, and unless you turn the crank relentlessly, nothing comes out. I think people who don't write--or try to write--want me to say how the Muse kisses my forehead and the words magically flow. They don't feel the Muse's kiss and therefore, they don't write.

I get a similar impression at conferences when new writers crowd around us published authors like we're the chosen anointed, holders of the secret key that will unlock the hearts of agents and editors. The truth is that if I had such a key, I'd be at the top of all the bestseller lists, winner of every freakin' literary prize, and so rich I'd hire Stephen King and E L James to entertain me with pie fights. But there is no such key. And even more irksome, the path for every writer's success is different. After Hugh Howey, author of the mega-hit Wool, punched the sweet spot with a Reddit Q&A, untold other writers have since tried to leverage that venue for similar results...and zilch. Using a different tactic, one writer used Instagram to gather an army of followers. Others have Tweeted their way to stardom. Countless others have tried to follow their examples and their efforts became exercises in futility. So what works? Who the hell knows? You have to blaze your own trail.

On social media, it's an echo chamber of advice for writers. Lots of scribes post all kinds of aphorisms and you-gotta-dos. Most of them are trite or vague. Once in a while someone twists the obvious into something that sounds profound and other writers pile on with the Hallelujahs. It's like church, and we behave like backsliding, guilt-ridden Baptists turning to the Holy Scriptures for comfort. And like church, we seek the company of fellow believers, those with the precise kind of faith. Ever notice that shopping for a critique group is much like looking for a congregation? In either case, we want a close-knit community who understands us, who welcomes us, who shares our parochial view of the world. Within the sanctuary of that group we make ourselves vulnerable to criticism in the struggle to improve our souls.

But don't think that I'm cynical about the need to gird yourself. Writing is an intense, intellectual process. It's easy to quit out of frustration. It's easy to stare at the screen and feel like your head is an empty balloon. It's easy to pour yourself onto the page only to see your writing appear like a confused mess.

What's the best writing advice? First, gain command of writer craft and understand storytelling. Read. Read. Read. If you're serious about writing, then it's got to be a priority in your life. And lastly, because writing--as much as we say we love it--the act can be a pain in the ass. With that in mind I share these powerful, illuminating words from Steven Pressfield:

"Our enemy is not lack of preparation; it's not the difficulty of the project, or the state of the marketplace, or the emptiness of our bank account. The enemy is resistance. The enemy is our chattering brain, which, if we give it so much as a nanosecond, will start producing excuses, alibis, transparent self-justifications, and a million reasons why he can't/shouldn't/won't do what we need to do."

The Title Dilemma

Oh what to call the precious gem. Actually, I'm convinced books are precious only in the eyes of the author. Once a book reaches a certain place in the production process and is subjected to the ideas of the marketing team nothing is more unnerving than the process of choosing the best title to maximize sales.

I'm used to houses changing my titles by now. The title of the first short story I ever published was changed from "Night Song" to "Alone at Night." After all, it was for a trucking magazine, Overdrive. And from then on it was strictly downhill. Or was it? Through the years, I've found the reasons for title changes fascinating. Come Spring was originally A Different Spirit. The reasoning there was that A Different Spirit sounded occult.

Bound by Blood was changed to Deadly Descent because my editor pointed out that clerks don't have time to read all the books and it would end up in the vampire section. I had envisioned the "Bound By" series. Bound by Blood, Bound by Death, etc. It's now the Lottie Albright series and each books has a distinctive name, although all have two alliterative words. I'm very glad. I have trouble keeping track of which books I've read in some series. John Sanford's Prey series comes to mind.

The academic book I'm publishing with University of Oklahoma press has been especially troubling. I worried about the first word, Nicodemus. It's about the ideas of three men who played a critical role in founding the town and I was afraid the descendants of people in Nicodemus would be distressed that their family wasn't mentioned. There are a number of books that could be written about the original colony and I hope those familiar with the genealogy will consider doing it.

Mine is about A.T. Hall, Jr., John W. Niles, and E.P. McCabe and its all about politics. I think the final title will be Nicodemus: Reconstruction Politics and Racial Justice in Western Kansas. The sub-title will narrow the focus an people's expectations.

I'm very, very happy with this one although Post-Reconstruction Politics would be more accurate. I started by wanting Creating a Civilization because African Americans had to do just that after they migrated to the High Plains.

This has been a hard book to write. Tracking down documentation is a lot of work. It's sort of like the sleuthing process in a mystery.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Here I Go Again...

It seems that several of us TypeMers are starting new projects right now, including me. So I read with great interest Vicki’s post on believing in yourself and Barbara’s post on creating characters.

All the changes for my second book, Paint the Town Dead, have been made. Other than looking over the ARC, it's essentially done. So I'm now moving on to my third book, which I've tentatively titled Tromp l'oeiled to Death.

Starting a new project is both exciting and daunting. I have all of these ideas floating around in my brain, but no plan or outline yet. So I've started writing down as much as I can, including partial scenes, hoping that I'll be able to make sense of it all very soon. Things are ever so slowly coming into focus.

At times like this I feel like I'm not accomplishing much, that I'm going nowhere. I liken it to the design phase of a software project. You've got lots of stuff written on whiteboards and in documents, but since no code has been produced, it doesn't feel like you're getting anywhere. You find yourself wandering hallways, hoping the movement will trigger something in your brain. (Or in the case of writing, surfing the web researching some aspect of the book in hopes something will come to mind.)

Just as I did with software design and coding, I have to keep on reminding myself that I need to believe in the process. To believe that I can produce a good and interesting story people other than family members will want to read. And do it in a fairly short time frame. (That last part is what I have trouble with!)

I’m fairly new at this writing game so I’m still refining my process. I come up with a basic premise (for Fatal Brushstroke that was “a woman finds the body of her painting teacher in her garden” and for Paint the Town Dead it was “Rory’s friend collapses in a class at a tole painting convention and dies.”)

From the premise I move on to working on the characters that will inhabit the story since I believe that out of the characters comes the story. Since this is the third book in the series I already have half a dozen I’m going to reuse, so it’s a good start, but I still have a lot of work to do. Once I have the basic characters and understand something about them, I write a short description of the murder and the cover-up from the murderer's point of view and come up with the main turning points in the story. Then I’m pretty much off to the races. This time around I think I'll write a one to two page synopsis of the story, which I think will help me focus my writing better.

I have no idea if this is the best approach, or even if it’s the best approach for me, but you have to start somewhere. So, I’m interested in how everyone else starts a new project. Do you start with creating characters? Or do you just start writing? Any words of wisdom for me?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The joys of research

I’m at sixes and sevens over what to write today for my weekly posting.

When I wrote that first sentence, I realized that this was a phrase I've heard numerous times over the years and yet I had no clear meaning about what it actually means (“the dictionary definition”, as it were) nor from where it came. Time for the Internet to come to my rescue.

I'll leave it to you to look up if you wish (start with Chaucer), but the process is called research, and for me, it one of the joys of doing anything of an intellectual nature.

It's also an absolutely perfect day here in southern Ontario, coolish, bit of a breeze, nice blue sky, the picture postcard of a lovely summer day.

Put together, I thought of some of my past research trips for the novels I’ve written. Being in a storytelling mood, maybe a good post would be to describe one of the more memorable ones.

This took place in March 1996 in Vienna. My wife, assistant, travel companion and translator Vicki and I were visiting the Schönbrunn Palace which was the Habsburg’s quaint, little “summer residence” – all 1441 rooms of it.

Yeah, we were there partly to do a bit of sightseeing, because its rococo splendour is really something to behold. But it was also part of my research for Cemetery of the Nameless a title that was “given” to me by a Viennese gendarme (but that’s another story for another post). What I was looking for was a location for the novel's climatic scene. Before traveling to Vienna, I had been thinking of using the Vienna Phil’s concert hall in the Musikverein. A quick visit there showed me it wasn’t suitable.

What to do?

Time to pull out our Baedeker Guide and find something more suitable. (Never travel without Baedeker, I always say.) I remember being immediately intrigued by the fact the emperor of Austria's cottage boasted 1441 rooms.

The palace — let's call it what it is, okay? — is truly spectacular. As we traveled through it, our jaws on the floor, I noticed a security guard coming out of a door hidden in a wall. What’s back there? I thought.

So I asked a guard (with Vicki’s help since her German is pretty decent) and he told us, “The servant’s hallways and rooms.” Of course the Emperor, his family and guests wouldn't want to see such mundane things as linen closets, kitchens and storage rooms, so they built these things out of sight in the centre of the building or between the “official rooms”.

“How do we get back there?”

“It is closed to the public.”

“Who could I speak to about it?”

“Herr Direktor, I suppose,” the guard answered, “but he will not allow you entry.”

With directions how to find the Direktor's offices in the basement, off we headed. You see, traveling through the Empress Elisabeth’s private bedroom, I’d spotted something intriguing, something where you might hide a great treasure and where you could be assured no one would look. And this was just what the ending of my novel revolved around. It was just (possibly) too perfect.

If I could only get back into the servant’s area. The way I had it figured, the worst I could be told was to get out. It wouldn't hurt to at least try.

We got to the Direktor’s office and I gave his secretary my calling card — something quite distinct from the usual business card, and something I'd been told to carry, so I'd made up a couple of dozen before leaving home. I explained to her what I would like permission to do. She disappeared into the Direktor’s office with my card, and came out a few moments later. “Sit here. Herr Direktor will see you in a few minutes.”

Maybe I was in? Ten minutes later, we were seated in his office again explaining that I was writing a crime novel set in Vienna and the climax of it might well be behind the walls of the Schönbrunn. I was flipping my calling card in his fingers while I spoke. Finally, he jumped to his feet, retrieved a huge ring of keys from a closet, and said, “Off we go!”

For the next hour we got a personal, literally behind-the-scenes look at this huge building. He was a delightful tour guide with an encyclopedic knowledge of the building and its history.

And miraculously, that is how I got exactly what I needed to build a really amazing climactic scene for Cemetery.

I can’t tell you what it was. You’ll just have to read the novel.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Believe in Yourself. Your Characters Do.

by Vicki Delany

I started writing a new book today.  Now if you know my writing you know that's not a particularly unusual or special event.  But it always seems special to me. 

No matter how many times I’ve done it, it’s a daunting task beginning a novel.  I have to turn one blank page into some 300 pages full of a different assortment of letters.

I recently came across this old post from way back in 2009 that works as well as advise for getting started as for finding your way though.


If there is one thing successful fiction authors have to have it’s a belief in themselves. They have to believe absolutely that they have the ability to create a good story.

Plenty of people, probably numbering in the millions, have an idea for a book or have begun to write one. More often than not, nothing comes of it, and the work is never finished. In many cases they hit the ‘soggy middle’ or can’t find their way through a tricky plot point, and give up.

Once you have a book or two under your belt, there comes a time in which you believe in yourself, or in your characters, and that knowledge will carry you through.

Case in point – I am a rough outliner, meaning that I have an idea of how I want my story to progress, and what obstacles are going to impede the characters. But the outline is drawn in broad strokes only and all the details have to be filled in as I go.

I’m working on Smith and Winters #4 (2015 Note: The book became Negative Image) in which there is a subplot involving a series of break and enters when people are away on vacation. From the very beginning I knew I had to come up with something that the homeowners had in common. Some reason why these people were broken into and others were not. But the reason had to be obscure – otherwise the police would discover it quickly. Cancelling the newspaper, or using the same house sitter, is too obvious. Trusting myself to think up something eventually, I made a note on a blank page saying “Reason XX knows these houses are empty?” and then settled down to write the book. I was approaching the end of the first draft. Still no idea. Kennel? Kids sports teams? Nope, Sergeant Winters would have considered that. I have to be smarter than Sergeant Winters.

I didn’t spend much time thinking about it. I trusted myself to come up with an idea, but I will confess I was getting a bit nervous. And then it happened - I was taking a walk, thought of something I’d seen, and – presto - I knew the answer. So perfect it even fit into another plot point without jiggling. 

The moral of the story is to trust yourself. Or trust your characters. I’m sure John Winters would have thought of it eventually.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Cynthia Kuhn: "Nothing Like Here"

I'm pleased to welcome Cynthia Kuhn as our weekend guest. Cynthia's work has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern; Literary Mama; Copper Nickel; Prick of the Spindle; Mama, Ph.D. and other publications. She blogs regularly at Mysteristas and is a member of Sisters in Crime, Guppies, and Mystery Writers of America. Lectured to Death, her first book in a new academic mystery series, is forthcoming from Henery Press in 2016. Visit her at cynthiakuhn.wordpress.com or @cynthiakuhn.

A woman of mystery -- who confesses she hasn't yet gotten her author photos done – Cynthia provided her profile image from Mysteristas.

Well-published as a professor, including scholarly books, Cynthia shares with us the challenges of writing an academic mystery. 

“Nothing Like Here”

There I was, in a bright, overly warm room, facing a group of professors who would soon vote on whether or not I should be promoted.  The interview went along pretty much as I’d expected—that is to say, I was increasingly dizzy and inelegantly chirpy as I described how much I loved the work. When the subject of my current writing project arose, I heard myself stressing that the setting was “A fictional university. Totally made up. Nothing like here.” That was the first moment I realized that writing an academic mystery while currently working in academia might not be the best idea I’d ever had.

I couldn’t help myself, though. Academia is paradoxical in the sense that while faculty expertise in the critical examination of ideas could be expected to lead to thoughtful and measured interactions, the result is often quite the opposite. Just a quick glance at The Chronicle of Higher Education provides ample evidence of plentiful conflicts, skirmishes, and battles. Contextually, it’s perfect for mystery plots.

When I began drafting Lectured to Death, I aimed to create hyperbolic versions of common academic experiences, pushing past the boundaries of typical professorial behaviors to (gently! lovingly!) satirize certain hierarchies and issues. Particular aspects may have been inconceivable outside of a fictional world, perhaps, but useful for foregrounding subjects worthy of consideration, I thought.

But as I continued to work on the book, some of those inconceivable things actually happened to people I knew at various schools. So all of it had to go. I came up with new inconceivable things. Then some of those happened, too. The line between satire and reality seemed disconcertingly thin. All I could do was revise yet again, acknowledging, like Inigo Montoya, that such things were (sadly) not inconceivable at all.

In the meantime, as word got out that I was working on an academic mystery, several colleagues suggested that I put this or that incident into the story. (I didn’t.) And one early reader said they’d enjoyed how I had turned so-and-so into a character. (I hadn’t.) The further into the project I went, the more I started to worry: could I write about any academic environment without everyone thinking that I was recording history rather than writing fiction?

Then a well-published author kindly explained that it didn’t matter because the people you know who read your fiction will think the events and characters are based on them, anyway.

Even though they aren’t.