Sunday, February 28, 2010

Communicating with your Muse

My muse isn't always what I'd call a good communicator.

She sits me down in front of the computer and speaks in whispers, often talking too fast for me to keep up as I furiously type the story she's weaving. Or she waits until I'm in the shower to throw an idea at me, when I've got shampoo in my eyes and am completely unable to write down her insights. Sometimes, as I sit there staring blankly at the page, asking "Okay, you lead me down this bizarre what?" I can feel her simply staring back at my placidly for a moment before she tells me just to keep at it and that she'll meet me around the next corner.

Sometimes, she takes me in a direction I don't want to go. "What are we doing here? This doesn't make sense! My characters wouldn't do that. Would they?" In those moments, one of two things happens:

  • I toss out what I wrote, and I realize that I just needed to get that scene out of my brain and onto the page to clear space for a better path, OR

  • She's taken me down an unexpected path that bears wonderful fruit once I make my way around that corner.

In both cases, I can see her standing there, smiling calmly at me, reassuring me that nothing is wasted and the whole process is perfect. Somehow, she's never impatient with my distrust of her seemingly wild schemes, nor my fear that she's leading me to a void from which I'll never find my way back.

Because let's face it: one of our greatest fears as writers is that we've written our last word, that we have nothing left to say, and that we'll be staring at the blank page for the rest of our lives. That we've spent all our creative capital, and our muse has abandoned us for a more worthy channel.

But while she might get very quiet sometimes, I know my muse is always there, because she's me. The part of me that's curious about life, about people, about the world around me--that part is taking in information, processing it, and turning it into interesting and creative ideas. There truly is nothing new under the sun, just new twists on the same themes. But you have to get out there and experience life if you expect to come up with those twists.

So if you're finding yourself at odds with your muse, don't blame him or her for being a poor communicator. Set your expectations more realistically, learn to listen to the way she likes to talk, get out there and be a student of life, and most importantly, try to embrace the uncertainty and fear that comes up around those times when you can't see where she's taking you or hear her voice at all. We put our protagonists in hopeless predicaments all the time, so if nothing else, you can use it as an opportunity to walk in your character's shoes for a little while. Or at the very least, we can use it as an opportunity to get away from the computer and interact with the people outside of our heads for a change.

Oh, and one more thing: when you hear her laughing, she's laughing with you, not at you. Really.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Judging a Book by its Cover

When I was writing Rising Shadow, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted on the cover. A horizontal slice of a black & white face. A black background. Green text for the title, and the eye colored in with the same green. I had a vision, and I created my cover and my web site to match. I was pretty proud of what I achieved.

Trouble is, I'm one of the few people who likes it.

I worked with my good friend Marianne, who is an artist and does some incredibly cool graphic design work, to come up with a logo and a cool design for the back of the book. She created exactly what I was looking for on the logo, and she made this torn paper effect on the back of the book so I could add an excerpt from my protagonist's journal. Then, she gently suggested that my cover might need some work and tried to help me polish it up, but I wouldn't have it. I liked it the way it was, damn it.

But now, five months later, after seeing enough reviews saying that the cover of Rising Shadow is lousy but the story is great, I decided Marianne was right. I needed to work with a pro. And not just a graphic designer, but someone who specializes in book covers.

This leads me to my point: there are two key things you can NOT skimp on when you are self-publishing. One is an editor. No matter how careful a writer you are, you have to have an editor. Period. The second, of course, is the cover.

I don't care which age group you're writing for--the cover is absolutely critical. It's the thing that first grabs our attention. It's what makes us pick up a book or read its summary online. A picture truly is worth a thousand words, and the cover is the thing that either draws us into a book or turns us away.

That being said, good covers aren't cheap. I decided that I had already tried the cheap route (doing it myself), so for book two, Merger, I needed to find a real pro. After searching the web a bit, I finally found a site that listed several cover designers. I browsed through their sites until I found one whose work really spoke to me and had the same feel I was going for: simple, striking design, not ornate, but polished and clearly professional instead of homemade. I sent him an email, he responded within a couple of days, and he's already sent me a very cool initial design that holds a lot of promise. It's already a thousand times better than what I was trying to do myself for Merger. And if I love the final product the way I think I'm going to, I'm going to bite the bullet and have him redesign Rising Shadow's cover, too.

It hurts to let go of something I was so proud of. But when you stumble upon a random review of your cover like this:

The cover feels...lazy. Like the cover artist just decided to throw on the title, author name, and a few other things along with some eyes.

...well, you know it's time to swallow your pride and call in the professionals.

If you don't have the budget to spend on a professional cover designer, you can try hooking up with an emerging artist who might do it for cheaper, such as a student in a graphic design course who needs a subject for his or her final project. Or you can get a friend to help out. Most importantly, look carefully at the other covers in your book's genre and try to do something that's in a similar vein but maybe has an original twist. If you're writing a romance novel, you don't want the cover to look like a text book, and if you're writing a non-fiction book, you don't want to have a hulking he-man carrying a scantily clad damsel to a distant castle. Get a strong sense of what's working in your genre and design accordingly. The cover-designer tools from services like CreateSpace are pretty good for non-fiction, but for fiction books, you have to have something more compelling.

Above all, learn to listen. Get as much feedback as you can, knowing that opinions will probably vary quite a bit. But you'll likely hear some common themes. Try not to hear what you want to hear but listen objectively. If you hear "I like it, but what's that blob in the corner?" more than once, go back to the drawing board and fix the blob.

Lastly, give credit where it's due. I left a comment on the blog post that critiqued my cover, thanking her for her feedback and telling her that I had in fact designed it myself (busted!) and was now working with a pro, and would she mind reviewing the next book with the professional cover? There's no guarantee that she's going to like the second cover either, but at least I can't be accused of being lazy this time. Plus, if someone has taken the time to review any part of your book, I think it's important to thank them and encourage them. If you haven't figured it out yet, bloggers are a writer's greatest allies, and we owe them a lot for devoting so much time to reading and promoting books.

So before you publish your book, bite the bullet and get the best cover you can. After all the time you spent slaving over the interior of the book, it's the least you can do to dress it up properly before its big debut into the world.