Friday, April 30, 2010

How a good host is like a good narrator

My in-laws finally made it from Paris last Thursday and arrived back in the US last night. So it was a shorter trip than anticipated, and we didn't get to visit Dublin as originally planned. But despite all that we had a good time sight-seeing around Bristol, eating well, and enjoying their company. Really. Love my in-laws.

So, needless to say, most of my energy this past week was focused on being a good host. At one point I was helping my father-in-law get on to the internet on my computer, and it occurred to me: being a good host is a lot like writing different points of view.

A good host anticipates a guest's needs before he asks. Basic things, like laying out towels and making the bed, but also noticing when a guest might be tired, or ready for breakfast, or need another cup of coffee. It's basic courtesy, but requires a host to pay attention to the feelings of those around her.

And isn't that what we do when we write characters? We put ourselves inside another person's head, wonder what they could be thinking, how they might react to an averse situation, try to figure out their innermost secrets and needs.

Course, anytime more than one character is in a scene, this gets exponentially harder (like running a hotel!). Recently I've been working on a scene set at dinner. My main character is angry no one will listen to her, but also horrified by her actions in the past scene. However I also have to incorporate her aunt and uncle, her brother and two cousins. What do they think about what just happened? Her aunt feels overwhelmed, her uncle disappointed and sad. Her older cousin is teasing her, her younger relatives are trying to eat lots of carrots so they can see in the dark. But her brother is also terrified of confrontation and wishes his sister would just be quiet and good. When I'm working on this scene, I'm juggling all of these thoughts and emotions in my description and dialogue. And unlike a good host, I don't need to keep them all happy. But I do need to anticipate everything they feel.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

This always happens...

Back to school and it hasn't been very conducive to blogging. Sorry. I'll be back on my regular schedule in a week or two.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Collecting stories

Course, the one day family's coming to visit from the US, a volcano erupts in Iceland, spewing ash across northern Europe. Luckily, everyone made it safely.

My mom sent me an interesting Chicago Tribune article about the eruption, the history of volcanoes in Iceland, and ash interrupting flight.

A few intriguing excerpts:

"The agency said Britain had not halted all flights in its space in living memory, although many were grounded after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States."

"In 1989, a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Boeing 747 flew into an ash cloud from Alaska's Redoubt volcano and lost all power, dropping from 25,000 feet to 12,000 feet (7,500 meters to 3,600) before the crew could get the engines restarted. The plane landed safely."

"In another incident in the 1980s, a British Airways 747 flew into a dust cloud and the grit sandblasted the windscreen. The pilot had to stand and look out a side window to land safely."

A Guardian article considers Iceland's 1783 volcanic eruption, which covered the island with poisonous gas and lava and destroyed much of its agriculture, resulting in a famine which led to the death of perhaps as many as a quarter of the nation's people. And more far reaching effects, like the freezing of the Mississippi in New Orleans.

I was telling a friend this past week that I've been jotting down stories that strike me, thinking maybe I'll find inspiration in them down the road for my next novel. If a writer can't find inspiration in some of these articles, something's wrong.

We're supposed to get a "blood-coloured" sun. I'll let you know.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Favorite Covers

Thanks to everyone who contributed their favorite covers. Here are the results:

From Sarah:

The Night Life of Trees, published by Tara Books, India

Sarah writes: "Oh my, there are a lot of covers and they are all gorgeous. Pick one that you like. This book is a work of art--you should get your hands on a copy." No kidding; while searching for the cover picture, I also saw some of the internal art: beautiful.

Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt, US cover

From Joanna:

"I LOVE the covers for Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books; this cover for The Queen of Attolia is literally what made me want to read the series."

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

"I've always loved this cover for The Hobbit"

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

"And I love this cover for Tombs of Atuan; the layout and the illustration and the colors are just gorgeous to me."

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

From Keren:

Keren writes, "I love the UK covers for Sarah Dessen's books - petty and clever." Here's Just Listen and That Summer

"And similarly the covers for Fiona Dunbar's Silk Sisters trilogy are very beautiful indeed." Here's Pink Chameleon

From Julia:

Julia writes, "I love covers that have lots to look at" and mentions:

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Julia also says The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett makes her feel like a kid again. Not sure I picked the cover you were thinking of, Julia, but this one made me smile!

I hope you don't mind me sorting these by those who suggested them, but so many of your comments had me nodding and smiling--I couldn't not include them.

Likewise, I couldn't not include MY favorites...

Graceling by Kristin Cashore, UK cover

Dani Noir by Nova Ren Suma (full wrap around cover)

The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

This is the first edition, and I apologize the image is so small; I couldn't find any other images. I first read this as a teenager, a book borrowed from a friend's dad. The cover had a cut out, revealing the main character on the inside page. I was endlessly fascinated by the cover and stared at it repeatedly as I read. Clearly, since I still remember it.

It was such a treat to see all the covers. Thank you everyone!

Monday, April 12, 2010

What makes a bad cover?

For the next week, I'll be running a series of posts on book covers. What makes a good cover? A bad cover? And what are your favorite covers? Please take a moment to submit a favorite cover (or three!) for next week's gallery of favorites.

1. Yuck.

If a good cover makes you stop in your tracks long enough to pick up a book, a bad cover is one that you don't want to touch, let alone be seen reading.

A lot of people have raved about the US cover of Melissa de la Cruz's BLUE BLOODS. I can see why. However, I have a complete, visceral, can't-stand-to-look-at-it reaction. I'm not big into vampire books to begin with, but I truly believe the only way I could read this book would be if I wrapped a new cover around it and never again looked at the original cover. Needless to say, that doesn't rank it high on my to-read list, no matter how good it might be.

Everyone, but especially teenagers, can be quite sensitive about what books they are seen carrying around. I think there's a fine line between a sexually teasing cover and a sexually explicit cover. For instance, I recently read Jennifer Echols' GOING TOO FAR. I think the cover's pretty sexy. Would I have carried it around as a teenager? Perhaps not.

I'm sure you can think of plenty more covers that go way too far sexually, romance novels being prime contenders. Dodai at Jezebel blogs on this trend. Apparently the romance industry refers to cover groping as "the clinch."

Some covers aren't gross or too sexual, they're just dull, they don't have the wow factor to make someone want to pick them up. The Booksmugglers have a great blog post about cliche covers. On the one hand, cliches can inform a reader about subject and genre. Swords, cloaks, glowy magic: looks like a fantasy to me. On the other hand, Aidan Moher at A Dribble of Ink blog wisely asks, "Why are clich├ęs shunned in the text of novels, but often embraced on the cover? Should publishers look for the same originality in their art departments that they seek in their authors?"

2. Can't even provide basic information: title and author

This should seem common sense, but with all the book cover tricks of fonts, holograms and foil, sometimes the title and author can be lost. Kristin Nelson at Pub Rants writes about author Brenda Novak's THE PERFECT COUPLE. Here's the jpg of the cover.
Here's what Brenda discovered when she actually received the published book in the mail (as compared to one of her previous books):

As Brenda Novak explains, "the turquoise foil is so dark there isn’t enough contrast against the black background. Held in the right light, it glimmers and shines and shows up just fine. But place it straight in front of you, and you can’t read “New York Times Bestselling Author” (which is a bit ironic, isn’t it?), my name (even though it’s in a huge font—which would also be exciting if you could see it), or part of the cleverly done title (the “Perfect” part, which is also ironic, since it is anything but perfect)."

3. Misleading information about the targeted age range, genre, subject matter or style.

OK, most of us will admit, we buy books based on partially on covers. So what happens when the covers are inaccurate representations of the books?

Author Keren David blogs about living in Amsterdam, with limited access to English-language books, and mistakenly buying a Jacqueline Wilson book which was too old for her daughter: "All of her books look as though they’re aimed at the same 8-12 audience, but some are not... the branding of her books, the bright colours, the Nick Sharrett illustrations, can fail to sufficiently differentiate between the books for younger and older children."

What about this cover?

If you didn't know Dean Koontz, would you expect thriller/horror? Eric at Pimp My Novel writes: "I, for one, would immediately mentally classify it as contemporary romance and never give it a second look, since that's not a genre that interests me."

4. Not just misleading... offensive.

The US cover of Justine Larbalestier's LIAR sparked a huge outcry. As Justine writes, "Micah is black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short. As you can see that description does not match the US cover." Here's an example of the original, offensive cover and the revised cover:

This has been referred to as whitewashing, and unfortunately several other examples have come to light recently. Larbalestier's post prompted a passionate industry-wise discussion about who reads, why people read, and whether white people buy books with people of color on the cover. For further information on this topic, The Booksmugglers have an excellent round-up. Please also read Ari of Reading in Color's impassioned open letter to Bloomsbury.

Have I missed anything? What do you think makes a bad cover?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What makes a good book cover?

For the next week, I'll be running a series of posts on book covers. What makes a good cover? A bad cover? And what are your favorite covers? Please take a moment to submit a favorite cover (or three!) for next week's gallery of favorites.

So what makes a good cover? I've narrowed it down to four elements:

1. "What? Wow..."

According to Lauren Panepinto, the Creative Director for Orbit Books, a good cover should "stop someone in their tracks and catch their interest just long enough for them to want to flip the book over and read the back." How? Obviously different people in the publishing process have different ideas about what works. But Lauren believes "you catch the most fish with a really gorgeous, cool, well-balanced book cover that catches your eye, then drags it in, and doesn't let it go until you've really looked at it, instead of just glancing over it."

Chicken House uses foil and holograms to make people keep looking at their books (unfortunately that doesn't translate so well digitally):

TUNNELS by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams

I've heard others in the industry talk about originality. If all the covers on the shelf are in pastel colors, a good book cover is made up of primary colors. Frances Lincoln's WHEN I WAS JOE by Keren David is a good example of that:

2. Provides basic information: author and title

Do we know the author? Have we read anything by her before? Is the title obvious, legible?

3. Provides other useful information: hints about targeted age range, genre, subject matter, and style

Consciously or not, we all make these decisions based on books' covers.

Signet Eclipse's SOME LIKE IT KILTED by Allie MacKay. By the way, is this not one of the funniest titles EVER? Love it. Obviously a romance novel. It's not for my nine-year-old.

Chicken House's FLYAWAY by Lucy Christopher (a Bath Spa PhD student & tutor!). I imagine beautiful prose.

Harper Collins Children's Books' WICKED LOVELY by Melissa Marr. Clearly an urban fantasy about faeries.

4. "This book is calling to me..."

Do you ever feel like a book was written with you in mind? A cover should reflect that, it should call to you. Author John Green has a great example of that: "The original cover of An Abundance of Katherines featured math on it, because it is a book about math. The new cover features clone-like images of pretty girls. Now, there can be no question that pretty girls appeal to a broader audience than abstract mathematics. But but but but but but: I would argue the job of a cover is not to get the book to the broadest audience but instead to get the book to its best audience."

Here's both of Puffin Books' covers:

John Green goes on to write, "The pretty girl cover will sell more at point of sale, but will it sell to the people who will like the book and recommend it to their friends? That should be the first question about a cover."

Well, I've made it fourth... oh well.

But John Green's point shows why I think cover design is so interesting. All of these elements of good cover design can contradict each other.

For example, does this cover work for you?

I'm intrigued. I have a hint of style and age. No title. Does it matter? (It's Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli).

We all know what romance novels look like, but is it possible to make a romance novel that stands out from the crowd yet still appeals to its base? That's the job of a good cover.

I think Scholastic's cover for SHIVER by Maggie Stiefvater accomplishes that beautifully. It's a romance, it has scary elements... is that a dog? A wolf? Perhaps a... werewolf?

Am I missing anything? What makes you unable to just walk by a book on the bookstore shelf?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Favorite covers?

For my MA class in Contemporary Children's Publishing, I'm writing an essay on cover art: how do books' covers come about and do good covers affect sales? As part of this, I've been researching designers, authors and publishers on what makes a good cover vs. a bad cover, and thought that would be an interesting series of topics to discuss on the blog.

But first, what are your favorite covers? The ones you proudly display on your bookshelf? The books you had to own when you saw the cover? The covers that had you continuously flipping back to them as you read the book?

Let me know your favorites, up to three, and I'll post a gallery of favorite covers on the blog next Wednesday. If there are multiple editions or editions for different countries, include a brief description or a link to the image so I know which cover you're referring to (unfortunately Blogger's comments don't let you post images--argh!).


Monday, April 5, 2010

On break--now what?

I've spent a lot of time the past few days wondering what writers do when they're not writing their novels.

I've come up with some answers. They work on non-fiction pieces. They work on short stories. They start a new novel. They read a lot. They clean their houses. They get out and enjoy the world.

The problem? I miss working on my novel. I don't miss the novel itself so much, I just miss the daily habit of getting up and always knowing exactly what I have to do and what world I'm going to inhabit. I've gotten into a rhythm and it's been disorienting not having it.

What I should be working on is an essay for my publishing class. I'm writing on cover art. But after spending months in a fictional story, with my heroine and baddies and danger, my essay seems really boring.

I think the solution to the problem would be to immerse myself in another story, to start my next novel, revive an old one, or to play with a short story. But it all sounds like so much work. And worse, I don't have a good track record with multi-tasking. What if I get too distracted? After all, I'm supposed to go back to my novel on Friday.

So for now? I'll just whine.

What about you? How do you take a break from work?

Friday, April 2, 2010

On Vacation

Well, mentally at least... still in Bristol.

When I met with my tutor last, she told me I had to go on vacation from my manuscript for a week when I finished the rough draft. I was so pleased with a required vacation--how often does that happen?

Of course many novelists will take months between their first draft and their revision, but since my novel needs to be submitted by the end of September, I don't have that luxury. I can afford a week, though.

Yesterday I did something I've been meaning to do since my first interview at Bath Spa University: I brought my camera.

I photographed my journey up the drive:

Behind me:

Some sheep:

Know how I keep saying I have classes in a castle? Here's the castle from the distance, across the lake:

Here's the castle close up:

I also took the opportunity yesterday to follow a footpath off the drive. It's a little difficult to see, but that's Bath Spa's campus in the distance:

It was so nice to spend a day getting outside and away from everything. The daffodils were in bloom. It didn't rain. And you know how when the wind blows through a field all the grass moves like waves? I had forgotten that.

The trees make sounds in the wind, too, when the tops of their branches whisper together and their trunks creak:

At the risk of sounding ignorant, does anyone know what this plant is (the brown dead looking one)? I saw them last autumn in Dorset, when I was first inspired to write Project Sparkle. How cool to see them again now.

What's next? This weekend Phil and I are visiting Glastonbury (yes, for all you King Arthur fans, THAT Glastonbury): small cute town, ruined abbey, lots of walking trails... and possibly King Arthur and Queen Guinevere's grave. And I just got bus tickets (there may be a train strike) to visit London for a day next week. Can't WAIT!