Scrooge played by William L. Hahn

Welcome to the Lands

A Word if You Are New Here

This is my site for information about the fantasy world known as the LoH_kg_2_map A5Lands of Hope. I have the usual bio and buy pages, also Maps and a free Compendium of lore, plus a cool notification feature if you want to see posts in your email box. Sign up for that and you get two quick Tales for free. Because no one should have to wait for a little Hope.
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Classics You’ve Never Read, Part 4- So Wrong, They’re Right

Classic: a book people praise and never read.

-Mark Twain

This one took me forever. Not to read, but to figure out. How to classify this classic work?- and yeah, no shot you’ve read it, dear reader, none- that question puzzled me until, to steal the words of The Grinch, my puzzler was sore. The movies clearly ranked it science-fiction: of course, because they wanted to play with the special effects. A horror tale? I really thought so, because the main character is such a threat- but I found myself chuckling so loud and often as I read, I knew it wouldn’t be honest to say so. The  author’s opinion on the flyleaf subtitle calls it “A Grotesque Romance”, but being written in 1897, I knew full well that was only going to confuse people. Back then, neither word meant what it does today. The synopsis definitely doesn’t go “ugly-boy-meets-girl, etc.” In fact, for most of the last half of the book. no one meets the main character at all! Hence the chuckling, amidst which a realization fell on me like a bolt. This story is really all about the crowd– the others, the bit characters and how incredibly wrong they get it (while still being right).

That’s the theme that runs throughout The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells.

I’m not going to pretend there’s a vast trove of unknown lore you need to catch up on by reading this book. The plot would fit on the back of an airmail stamp.

Now you see him...
Now you see him…

Obsessed amoral scientist turns himself invisible, tries to get back to normal, can’t, hurts people and causes chaos, dies. With that title, there’s no whopper of a mystery going on! But that’s where the thread picks up. As with some of his other works, Wells chooses to describe and judge his main character to you through the eyes of everyone else in the story. A mysterious man wrapped from head to toe arrives at a small town inn, and never comes out of his room. So it’s not his thoughts, but those of the tavern-crowd we are treated to. Mrs. Hall the innkeep’s wife is thrilled to have a “gentleman” boarder, but of course insatiably curious, henpecking her indifferent husband to invent excuses for knocking on the door. The regulars at the bar look on, as the guest’s increasingly aberrant behavior comes out onto the landing or is shouted through the walls.

And what do they guess? These sleepy village folk, simple rustics with that classic stolid sense of “what’s right”, do they come close to figuring out what the title character is up to? Not by a country mile: an ‘arful accident, p’raps some nasty disease, that’s what brung him into those wrappings, surely. The story continues- the mystery guest becomes ever more combative and erratic. Windows open and close by themselves, the local prior is robbed, nosy landlords appear to eject themselves from the second-floor guest room. Still no one can make heads or tails of it- you’re screaming “INVISIBLE MAN, IDIOTS!” but it does no good. The crowd continues to bumble and guess wrong- yet somehow, they manage to flush out the IM, brilliant scientist or no. Because

Not this one!
Not this one!

he’s the bad guy- treats people arrogantly, never pays up (“put it on the bill!”), loses his temper. T’isn’t right- and while the full population of the village can’t assemble one clue between them, yet there’s a kind of righteous tide, simple questions pile up and the villain is unmasked, forced from his rooms with some of his criminal intent exposed.

Wells is not faithful to any particular individual in the crowd- your PoV jumps from one stubbornly inane opinion to another, sometimes for the length of one line and never to return. A fair bit of time is spent with an unfortunate hobo, a poor fellow accosted as the IM roamed “naked” through the countryside (what are the odds?) and beaten, petrified into helping him along for a while. In the final third of the story, we settle in the house of IM’s former school-mate, another scientist fortuitously living in the vicinity, to whom he can at last begin to explain his progress.

Here the veil of humor drops away, and I must say the story of his experiments are not appropriate for all audiences. The IM coolly describes how, from his London apartment, he first tried his experimental process on the landlady’s cat- and only later discovered how agonizingly painful it was. “So that was why it meowed so awfully all those hours”- this more than anything coming before or after shows me what a beast he always was. It’s a dreadful scene: perhaps even his fellow scientist is affected by IM’s ruthless, sociopathic attitude. An attempt at betrayal leads to another rampage from the IM, who without clothes always has the advantage (or seems to). The ending is unimportant except for how it reinforces some of the themes I’ve been harping on- the many in the crowd, the entire district roused to action by the threat of an invisible menace who has declared war on mankind, and eventually they get him. In the process, they don’t do much that’s right, and some make horrible mistakes as usual (the laughter is gone from the tale by now- and I STILL don’t know what genre this really should be called). In the end, the IM reappears, which is to say, he dies.

I totally see Kevin Bacon
I totally see Kevin Bacon. You?

Good.

Hollywood seems to have followed the same general idea, both in the 1930s version with Claude Rains and the usual steroid-pumped remake (“The Hollow Man”) with Kevin Bacon. I haven’t seen all of either one, but it seems clear this theme of the common folk is preserved in the first, lost in the second. Without these untrustworthy narrators, without the gaggle of wrong-footed yokels to stare and puzzle and go off on tangents when they theorize, the tale loses a vital something.

This is something you see in epic fantasy all the time- on either side of the village’s only street as the strangers arrive, in battles and at church, and ESPECIALLY of course inside the tavern. They drink, they argue, and most of all they get it comically, horrendously wrong. Through their beloved bigotry and hackneyed catch-phrases I learned a lot about the world, the problems facing the heroes. One tavern scene I chronicled in The Ring and the Flag had so much going on, I visited it again on the same night in Fencing Reputation. {All different material, all still wrong!} And the famous Mark’s Inn of Wanlock sees repeated action in The Plane of Dreams. Some of the greatest heroes the Lands will ever know passed through its door and the regulars hardly noticed, yakking on about adventurers, crime, and the ever popular what’s-wrong-with-the-world-today. They’re totally off about who the heroes and who the villains are, much more often than not. But they get it right in the end. Things ARE going all sideways, and those adventurers (wherever they are), they don’t belong here.InvMan33

More than that; I realized from reading The Invisible Man that Wells was really double-casting the entire process of reading a great adventure. Get this, it’s brilliant. The main character isn’t really there, right? Because he’s YOU. The writer: struggling, trying for genius, losing it- and desperate to keep people from finding out your story until it’s done. And the crowd? The inn-folk, the villagers standing around and apparently too silly to guess what two and two add up to- they’re the readers of your tale. You WANT the reader to be just like them- not catching the whole thread, but very curious and grimly determined to find out more. They press you, they don’t get it, annoying yet persistent. They’re good people. And in the end, both crowds inside and out get it right. That famous saying about how often the customer is not wrong? It applies.

Whenever you hear from the crowd in a fantasy tale, you can see the readers right in their place- it’s a wonderful way to draw them in, make them feel as if they’re standing by the bar, or in the second row. None of them understand your main character, but they’re getting interested in finding out. The Invisible Man teaches a lot about people, the common character of what you might call human nature. And that’s really good news- unless of course you’re a bad person like IM himself, trying to spread chaos and evil with your tale. Then they’ll hunt you down and kill you. But that’s not your problem, unless you’re George R. R. Martin…

Where is the crowd in your story? Are you pulling readers into the book by using the masses?

B(u)y the Cover: Two Things to Judge

This is the second half of my library-series redaction on the importance of having a good cover for your genre fiction book. As indies, we have a lot of control–read that as responsibility– over many aspects of the soup-to-nuts production of our tales. Don’t shy away from working on the cover just as hard as you did on the mystery reveal or that incredibly cool plot twist halfway through. Give the reader a powerful image, to help them get there.

Send a Message

Last post I put up two covers by authors I know and who I think did at least a fair job. Don’t bother to click back, here’s the first one again:

 Patrick Rockefeller writes a spooky, intellectual brand of horror that is really tight and effective. He hit a no-doubt home run with that image.

This is a horror story.

And that’s the first goal of your cover, to send a message.

About genre. Damn it, yes!

But, But, Unique!

Yes I know, your story crosses genre lines. It brilliantly bends all such staid distinctions drawn ages ago by stuffed shirts from Big Pub. Listen, I don’t doubt that, it wasn’t sarcasm (I use italics for sarcasm). EVERY story worth the read is going to tip-toe into other genres. Horror with a touch of romance, fantasy epics with mysteries to solve, spy novels where the gear starts to look sci-fi. As they say in court, the state stipulates to the facts in question.

And it doesn’t matter at all, my friends. Remember Africa?

Bookstore categories will not reflect your subtle genius. Customers, readers never answer this question with “I need my historical zombie romance to have a spice of the paranormal with a strong underlying theme of alternate genders, and preferably set in the third world”. (See? Sarcasm!)

Those readers do just what you do- they take all their fond memories of masterpieces they’ve read, the admiration for those specific, original moments and every ounce of their personal tastes in reading… and they head for the sign that says “Fantasy/Sci-Fi”. Or “Horror”, “Mystery” or one of the other aisle titles they’re used to seeing.

Messaging Helps the Reader TARGET You

Your cover needs to show them that center of gravity, the best place out of the whole store it belongs. Once you get them in the right area, THEN you can start to entice them to YOUR specific book. As long as you think you’re up against every title from the Bargain Bin to the reptile magazines, you have no shot.

Look at these images. They’re JUST IMAGES. But if they were the primary artwork on the cover of a book, one you found on the floor of the store, could you put them in the right section?

I won’t belabor the point with writing: if you want to give me blow-back, come at me in the comments. But I think it’s clear what I mean.

Sending the Signal Starts with Embracing a Genre

Don’t make selling this tale harder than it already is. The impact of Big Pub is never going away: they’ve put certain stereotypical images into the market and you can’t change that by running at them yelling “booga-boogah!” Study your “home” genre’s best selling covers and keep that closely in mind. You want to sprinkle in some of your book’s unique flavor? Sure, but realize you’re taking your chances. Save it for the blurb. Or better yet, Chapter Six.

A Professional Look: Is Truth-Telling More Important than Book-Selling?

If you’re reading this and asking yourself “who wouldn’t want to put a professional cover on their book?” I need you to go back and look at some of the examples in the previous article again.  So yes, a professional look is crucial though it’s not a guaranteed home-run. I have examples from my own history to use here, but first, let’s gaze once more on the work of Ms. Le Roux:

I think this is a marvelous cover, great execution, font, all the elements in a good place and also very attractive art work. Ms. Le Roux, a South African author, was disappointed with the initial sales results of this YA fiction piece, and was very much aware that she was asking for genre confusion because as she admits, “I don’t have a kickass girl or a brooding male on the cover.”

But it’s a GREAT cover! I asked her if the existence of Big Ben in London was important, and she replied not only that it was but that the rainbow is also precisely drawn from the tale. To my knowledge she is sticking to her guns- the next tale in the series moves to Paris and will have a picture of Notre Dame on the cover. All the best Sunee!

Because When is a Good Time to Show a Bad Cover?

Years ago, when Kindle was taking over the world and print was supposedly dead, some pundits quipped that you didn’t need a great cover because it was only a thumbnail online. And I listened to those people… But engage the brain a sec. Forget about just online e-book sales through Amazon, you want to go narrow that’s fine. But people can grow the screen- you do realize that, yes? And if you pursue the local marketing, what will the radio station put on their website to advertise your interview? What will the indie bookstore have on its posters to draw people in for your author day? Your photo, sure maybe. But if not your cover, then what, all of chapter 1!

Read This- If You Can

Here’s a cover I think illustrates the point very well.

It’s called… um, the title of the book is, ah… it’s Details of Deception, right by, um… it’s by…

See the point? Of course you don’t! Did this person deliberately decide it was a great idea to give us all vertigo just trying to see the first words? I mean, the genre is fairly clear- this is some kind of robbery/embezzlement/hoax thriller where there’s a shortage of honor and oversupply of thieves. But apparently there are no eye-charts because, hooey! That’s a trial.

BTW, imagine how much fun the thumbnail-size of this would be!

Don’t bother, here it is:

 

 

Looking Professional Takes… Wait, Let Me Think…

It’s in the name, people. Pro work involves spending. If you have the talent, great, then your money is time and that’s fine. Otherwise… find someone and get this job done.  As an indie author you will probably take on the writing (in fact, I assume you will be pretty good at it!). Editing? Lots of authors accept the responsibility to edit their own work, and I could go on another blog post just about that–don’t tempt me, I might. Formatting for publication, choosing platforms, arranging the business models, deciding to buy ads, using social media and a zillion other things to push your platform: all of these present you with a choice of DIY and Hire, with variations between.

But the cover– that’s one area I would say is close to non-negotiable. Maybe you’ve schmoozed an aspiring artist. Possibly you can swap services with your confidants. Perhaps you can find a royalty-free image that speaks to you. You could possibly get the software and learn to do it.

But you can’t let the reader wonder whether you’re telling a joke or not:

This cover sends a clear (enough) genre message. It’s paranormal romance. It might also be hilarious, and I rather hope it is. However…

When do two people ever stand like that? Is he going to propose? Or maybe start eating… or was there a crucial moment when she asked him to help find a blackhead.

The title font color? I mean, is it SUPPOSED to look like chewed-up fiance, is that part of the intent? Or is the idea just to make it harder for someone to read it, because you figure if they hold the book long enough they’ll buy it?

Finally, I’ll give you a quarter if the name Ms. Hart’s parents put on the birth certificate was spelled “Crymsyn”. Thanks to Nerine Dorman for pointing out the online treasure that is the Changeling Press for covers like this.

Telling the Truth, and Losing

But enough of laughing at other people’s mistakes, let’s get this blog back to where it belongs, humiliating me.

Like I said, I fell in with a bad crowd at first. I wanted to spend zero money on this new hobby, and I believed the know-it-alls of 2011 when they said I could. I arranged to swap beta-reading for cover art help with a colleague, but I retained full control of the idea for one of my first tales, The Ring and the Flag. In all its glory, here it is from 2011:

So wow, yeah, so many problems. It’s not formatted to the right proportions of a book (too square), the writing is all over the place. And worst of all it’s hard to read. The map looks faded. Here’s the bad news- that was intentional! The original is much crisper and has straight edges. I ASKED for the burn-marks and the smoky effect.

Because that’s the truth. There’s a precise moment in the tale when my hero has a vision of this map bursting into flames, representing a civil war that will rend the North Mark, unless his desperate mission succeeds. Which is cool, the truth is always cool.

It just doesn’t sell any books. But I was only thinking of e-books, and thumbnails, and nothing else back then. Because stupid.

There is Always Hope- For Your Cover

But then the unsinkable Katharina Gerlach sent me the greatest, most author-friendly one-page contract in the history of doing people favors. And as soon as I had signed it, she spilled her plans to redo the covers on my books. Which ones, I asked? Basically, all of them was the response. But let’s start with this one. Here’s how Kat punched up my cover in 2014:

Now that’s what I’m talking about, yeah? Clear contrast, better placement of various title phrases. Actually MORE words on the front. And now, notice the branding elements: this is the often-lost part of good cover design. The Lands of Hope logo in the upper right, the publisher’s imprint in the lower left. Nothing seems in the way, and the mysterious monster is also telling the truth for that’s another theme in the tale.

This is a very proper cover in my view- love to hear your thoughts. But I’m not done.

A few years ago I met online a nice lady named Erin Michelle Sky, who wanted to try doing marketing work for indie authors. She offered me a free marketing plan in return for honest feedback. Last things first, I loved the plan: and my publisher loved it even more. Erin observed that the books in the Shards of Light series were novellas, fairly short and less expensive. Also they are well paced with strong action elements reminiscent of playing a RPG. So, why not try to sell them in the gaming stores! And the cover could even reflect this, maybe a collectible card game look.

Great idea, my publisher cried. BTW, what’s a collectible card game? I gave her some pointers and she ran amok again. Take a gander at the THIRD iteration of my book:

Boom, baby! Now there’s a bit less of a mystery to the monster, but the cover art is the definition of “jumps out at you”. And note the branding elements, essentially suggesting that this is a playing card from M:tG or some such, yet puts all the important information out there.

One important aspect of branding as part of a professional cover design is that it can emphasize the series-look, which circles back to sending a message to the reader that here is a tale they can trust. The two feed each other in a virtuous cycle that drives more people laying down more coin to pick up more titles. That’s the idea. See what you think:

Two Things to Judge the Cover

In summary, the cover of your book deserves your time and your money, if anything does. It tells the first thousand words of your tale whether you like it or not: make sure you’re the author of those “words”. Because people make judgments on less.

Send a Message: Embrace the home genre of what you’ve written. Let the uniqueness and the category bending, the brilliant deconstruction and form-inversion be something they discover in the, you know, writing that comes later.

Look Professional: Or at least not like a collision between MS Paint and your refrigerator art. Not that your kids don’t draw really well, but I think you know what I mean. Use whatever you must to get it right. Including money.

Give me your thoughts! Link to your covers, critique mine, go for it.