Happy New Year – Happy Birthday

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Yay – it’s a New Year. There’s always so much hope and beauty at the thought of something starting new and fresh. Many of those who join the gym, lose motivation around March. Writers who resolve to write every day lose motivation about Jan 2nd. Just Kidding!

I resolved last year to write 365 days. Well, it didn’t quite happen. In reflection, I figured out what stunted my writing. In all honesty, it’s the stupidest reason in the world. Computer problems. I hate to run out and buy another computer. I get used to things and want them to continue to work. I kept trying to deal with the problem and would distract myself from the computer completely!

I took up journal writing in an effort to help. It helped! For awhile.

But enough about last year! This is a new year! New challenges to overcome! And, yes, it’s my birthday! When I was a kid, I hated it. HATE. Loathe. Detest. Everyone was burned out from Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The kids were all out of school – no cupcakes for me!

You might think, getting older, would be another reason to hate it. But I don’t. I love it. I love that my birthday is on the first of January. The start of the new year.

I’m told I was born under a mutable grand cross. Similar to Mike Tyson and Charlie Sheen – uhm….  Okay.  I’m also told I’m a Firehorse. In ancient China, they used to kill firehorse children, especially if they were girls. Uhm…  okay.

Some years ago, on January 1st, I undertook a hike to the top of the Hollywood Sign. Notnew year 2 that easy dirt path some of you may be familiar with; our leader took up ankle breaker trail and cardiac hill. I didn’t know there was an easier path!!!  Standing at the top of the Hollywood Sign (the hill behind, really), I met an astrologer (who took the easy path) who became animated when I told him it was my birthday; he said I was a King of Spades and I should be writing books and teaching people. 🙂

At least he didn’t reference Hamlet’s father.

I don’t really make resolutions for the new year. I make goals throughout the year to keep myself motivated. Sometimes, throughout the year, those goals are met, and sometimes they are changed.

Resolutions are bronze: Bronze is a hard metal made of copper and others that form an unbendable form. We are humans; we need something a little less stiff.

Intentions are silver: Silver is harder than gold, but doesn’t seem as immediate. It’s shiny and pretty and we want to continue to come back to it.

Goals are gold: Gold, can be melted down and made into other things.

I’d like to write in different genres. More essays. More serious writing. I’d like to take more time with my fiction writing. I’d like to reach a larger audience – teach – and help.

Happy New Year!
Wishing you much success and love for the coming year.

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Writing with Kids…

rollercoasterWriting with kids is more challenging than writing on an upside down rollercoaster.

I am the proud Nana to a beautiful baby boy whom I get to play with pretty often. AND I LOVE IT!

But when my kids were young, I’d be lucky if I got one day of writing done. I’d journal at night, in secret, in the dark, in my room.

Stephen King and Dan Brown say they write every day. Brown writes from 4am to 11am every morning. And they have kids!wives

But, see, they also have wives! The wives get the kids up, feed them, take them to school or make the dentist or doctor appointments, stay home when the kids or sick or stay up all night with the sick kid. Or at least, this is what I imagine. I don’t actually know because I’ve never read in an interview in which they talk about their wives. Hmmm.

clappingSome women writers have accomplished finished products and publications while being a parent. YAY! Let’s hear it for them. That is quite a task. I’m not sure how they did it, but I do give them kudos. I wonder if they hired a wife to help – you think??

Book Signings!

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Awful People, Awful Places

I had the unfortunate displeasure of spending time with people I’m not fond of. I am barely able to tolerate negative people. I can’t stand people who are so mired in their own sense of self importance or righteousness that they can’t see beyond their own bullshit.

I came away regretting my decision to go and feeling very nasty inside, as if a piece of my soul had been burned away. I sat with it all night, no television, no radio, nothing to drown out or distract myself from the boiling nastiness of an impression they left on me.

2333Then I thought – I’ve never written anything about them. And I can see why. I never want to deal with them or be around them or even think about them ever, ever again.

But that inspired something. One woman has a big round face that appears to be growing from another face. Her husband stared at me as if he was planning the perfect recipe for my kidneys, liver, heart. “A slaw, soaked in buttermilk and vinegar.” I’m pretty sure I heard him say as he passed by.

And then the keepers of the whole chud-like crew.

I’ve been known to write some pretty dark things. People like this are the reason why.

Untitled, but begun.

I will give these soul sucking people a different life. I’m sure they won’t like – if they bother to recognize – themselves.

This will give that scent of madness, the sickly feeling of food poisoning filling my bodily cavities, some place to go and rest.

Use it, ladies and gentlemen, use all the things and people and places you don’t like to fuel your writing.

You Should Judge a Book by Its Cover

How to avoid some typical mistakes when packaging your novel.

Guest Blog by John Grabowski

So many good novels are hindered by bad covers.

You would think publishers would invest a lot of time and attention to covers, especially in this age on thumbnails and on-line shopping, but it seems many don’t. And that’s professional publishers. Self-published covers tends to be even more hideous; I can almost always spot a self-published novel just from looking at the thumbnail.

Take this one…

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(Incidentally, I want to stress that I am in no way passing judgment on the literary merits of the books I cite as example, most of which I have not read. They may be the greatest novels in print right now, for all I know—all the more reason great covers are crucial.)

The Competition. Beautifully done, but what does the image say? What is this book about?

There are so many elements going on, yet they add up to…what? There’s the painting inside the image, which seems to be on fire (or is it?) and then there’s a field behind it, and the painting appears to be of that field, though there’s not enough field visible to tell, and the rather small title and author lettering…and what does a painting, a fire and Georgian England have to do with a competition? What kind of competition? And how does Georgian England play into any of it? It’s both complicated and yet unable to communicate anything.

Now here’s a stunningly done professional cover by contrast…

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Beautifully focused and eye-catching. Much cleaner than The Competition, with only two elements (three if you count the little decorations at the top and bottom), a simple photo and centered, balanced text.

Yeah, but again, what’s it about. It shows a house—a shack, really—in the middle of nowhere. Kind of “blind,” right?

With a little looking, the answer is, no, it’s not. The image suggests anonymity, the unsung, the lonely, in perfect keeping with the title. It’s also a period piece, a work about forgotten people (from the “dustbowl” era of the 1930s) and the sepia tone photo of the shack and the parched land works for that. The fact that the title is in lowercase letters underscores the “underdog” quality of the work. We don’t know exactly what this story is about, but we know the tone, the era, and the type of people we are going to meet. It’s enticing without giving a lot away. I don’t know about you, but it pulls me in, makes me curious.

Covers don’t have to be that stark and austere, though. Obviously an approach like that would not work for a more contemporary, upbeat novel, but the same rules apply: one clear image, simple font, clean, balanced design. Not too many elements fighting each other. Ideally your eye pops from image to title to author. The best covers are often quite simple:

Steve Martin’s Shopgirl cover is especially telling. Not only is it ridiculously simple, it’s for a novella about an older, somewhat predator man who has eyes for a, well, shop girl. The image of the girl is not only showing us everything but her face, but it’s set small into the cover, inviting us to scrutinize it, much as the male character scrutinizes her. It reflects the book’s tone and psychology, in other words. And I love the brave choice for Tiffany D. Jackson’s Allegedly. Current wisdom mandates covers feature large fonts and images so that they pop when viewed online as thumbnails; this designer went small instead, and I think it pays off by piquing your curiosity.

Unlike Shopgirl and Allegedly, many book’s covers fail because they are too generic. I understand wanting to blend in to your niche, but…

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…while technically well done, looks like a hundred other books of its type. Is there anything you’ll remember about this book 30 seconds later? (Some authors, such as Sue Grafton or Dan Brown, have covers that follow a genre or “house style.” But they’ve already built a following; readers are looking for their designs the same way fast food connoisseurs look for Golden Arches or Colonel Sanders.)

Many writers who make their own covers discover the huge toybox of effects available with modern design software. Consequently, they go crazy with offset type, strokes, bevels, bleeds, strokes, and all sorts of font distortions that may look cool the first time you see them but quickly get old. Here’s one terrific example:

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Wow, where to begin? There’s the cheesy, Photoshop filtered images, tinted purple (and I had to look four times before I saw the teeny-tiny oil well), the offset “3-D” font, the subheading right on the cover (the same us true of the first novel, by the way, The Competition: Do not write a subheading that “explains” the book. That’s for the back jacket or inside flap), the “by Alon Shalev.” (Don’t say your novel is “by” you. What other name would be on the cover?) There are three distinct fonts here—I won’t go into elaborate design theory, but don’t use more than two—and one is ideal (see Whose Names Are Unknown, above). If you must use two, make sure, like Simon and Garfunkel, like Sacco and Vanzetti, like Penn and Teller, that they pair well. Look up “fonts that look good together” or something such—yes, designers have made lists. And go easy on drop shadows, inner and outer glows, and other special effects. Like tasteful makeup, these should only be used if needed to enhance the natural effect, not be slopped on so that your cover is the equivalent of Tammy Faye Bakker’s face. (Google her if you’re too young.)

Basically, just as you should have a direct, simple elevator pitch, you should have a memorable visual for your cover. Even a very complicated story can be boiled down to one idea, one thought. An opus as massive as the Bible could be summed up as The story of humanity’s fall, and the road back.

To sum up: Find an image (and make sure you have usage rights or you could get into hot water) that symbolizes the essence of your story. It needn’t be literal; metaphors work great. But do avoid stock photos of clichés, like winding roads or sunsets or blue skies. Choose an image that isn’t busy, so that the text doesn’t get lost inside it, unlike this one:

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Use clean, easy fonts, no more than two and preferably one. There’s a lot you can do with one font, altering the weight (thickness), tracking (space between letters), case (upper and lower), color, and size for powerful effects. You don’t need unusual fonts to stand out either. Look at this gorgeous cover for Ann Patchett’s A State of Wonder. It looks elaborate, but it’s actually clean and controlled.

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There are numerous websites that discuss these basic design principles. I’m not going to recommend links because they may change by the time you read this. Find a few, absorb their lessons, and go forth with you projects confident you will bring something bold and beautiful into the world.

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John Grabowski is the author of Violet Rothko and Other Stories, a collection of short fiction coming in September from Millennium. His first novel, Entertaining Welsey Shaw, was praised by Kirkus Reviews for being witty, fast-paced and “filled with flirtatious banter.” AuthorJohnGrabowski.

 

Author to Author

FB_IMG_1566788074474Hanging out with people who are serious about their writing feeds a writer’s soul.

Here’s me with Dan Rhys, author of The Lone Escapist. Where’s my book?! I need to start carrying a copy with me!

The Unintended Consequences of Story

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I heard from a woman who asked me to share a story with young people. The story was my own, The Healer’s Daughter, from How to Throw a Psychic a Surprise Party.

She said the story was valuable and every young person who has ever bullied or been bullied needs to read it.

Bullying is a part of the story, and for the little girl in the story, it’s a very big part – as it was for any and all of us who were on the wrong side of the mean kids.

She felt, I believe, it would also help bullies to gain some sort of understanding. Maybe, maybe not. But I appreciated her feedback on what some people feel is a minor part of the story.

I appreciate the feedback and that my story touched her so much she feels the need to share it.

Much appreciated.

Our stories have power. And they have unintended consequences. I’m happy that mine leaned toward positive.