The Demons of Critique Groups – Addendum to Novel Workshop



Now, these can be a problem in short stories too, but some of them are rather specific to novels, and if you’re a first time novel writer and find a writer group for guidance, they’ll eat you alive.

I could give you a list of ten, but I figure it will do nothing, because to counter the poison, you need to know why it’s a poison, and that it in fact has nothing to do with your novel.

Let me start by saying that writing critique groups are invaluable. I understand artists have them too and the last time I took a class, the teacher said I was now ready for one, and that it was the only way to get me from where I was to where I should be.

Because at some point you get past what you can be taught and need to get to what you can learn (on your own/with peers.) It’s hard to explain, but if you’ve been there you know it. As a writing teacher I (and definitely Dwight Swain in his books) can teach you the very basics, but as you grow and develop your own style and flourishes, only your peers reading as readers can tell you if it’s working or not.

That reading as readers is important. You’re going to say “but why a writers’ group, then?”

Oy. Well, if you can’t get a writers’ group then a group of ten or so readers will do. Ignore anything that ten of them don’t emphatically say.

There’s many reasons why writers’ groups are better, though. For one, you’re going to have a heck of a time, as an unpublished author, finding ten people who read in your particular subgenre to read your stuff. (That last sometimes still gets me, say when I’m writing historical vampires.) Second, readers ALWAYS think what you want them to critique is your grammar, punctuation and word choice. No, I don’t know why either. However, it’s universal. They either can’t turn that part off, not being used to seeing books in state of assembly, or they honestly view writing as the important part of writing. By which I mean not the storytelling, but the word use. Because they don’t do either, they talk on the one they’re more competent on. (Be glad. My grandfather, shown a short story when I was 11, critiqued it on penmanship. He was actually a voracious reader and friend with many authors of his time – not a mean storyteller, either – but in his time manuscripts were submitted hand written. He told me no editor would fight my scrawl to read it, and first I needed calligraphy classes!)

Third, and more important, readers lack the vocabulary. They can tell you they like it or not, and whether they like a character or not (I love having beta readers) and they can give you a general “this is the best ever” but they can’t tell you “Chapter 22, the action lags. I think you need to set up a bigger challenge.” For that, you need someone who has at least inked his hands with a story or two.

Interestingly, my husband says that once he’d learned enough to give me useful critiques, he’d become a writer.

Anyway, the problem with most groups, particularly open, come who might, changes every week groups, is that they often don’t read as readers. Having written a story or two, they think they’re now professionals (Particularly if they had some early success) and you’re a lowly amateur who needs to be taught.

Another problem is the groups that have a leader or a gospel. By which I mean, the groups that have the ONE published author (the reason I don’t have a group right now, and I desperately need one, is that I refuse to take up that role) and the author has Opinions on how Things Are Done.

The best group I ever belonged to held me back for two years when we (I was very much to blame in this) fell under the sway of the One Published Writer with a Gospel. In her case, she had sold one book, ten years before. And she had this THEORY of how to write a book. (Which didn’t work at all outside her narrow specialty.) Weirdly for a woman, she disapproved of feelings or interior dialogue, which she thought was “romance.” (No, really.)

She cost us a good two years as we bent backwards to do what she said. Then she moved on. Years later, when I sold, I sent her my first published novel on email. She must not have understood the email, because she told me it would never get published, and it was “romance.” Shrug.

Even the best groups will have one of these:


  • The person who never wrote/can’t write a novel and who will do his/her best to discourage you out of inadequacy, though that’s not what they say.
  • The amnesiac. If you’re bringing in a chapter a week, he’s forgotten the previous chapter and will query everything he doesn’t get.
  • The expert. Your novel is a nail and he has a hammer. My favorite of this was the guy who yelled at me for using burner and how I should give the make and model of the gun – completely missing the (described) fact it was a laser weapon.
  • The POV fanatic. You have pov violations. I have pov violations. We all have pov violations. Mea culpa mea maxima culpa. It is impossible to write a story without pov violations. Which is why you should sit in a corner and never write again, you violator you.
  • The typo and punctuation priest. He will tell you that you’ll never be a writer because you misplaced a comma on page 455.
  • The philology expert and other arcane art priesthood. This is where you get things like “you can’t use words of different origins together.” I believe they make Prozac for that, but these people never take them, preferring to share their neurosis. Seriously, unless you’re writing over-precious poetry most of their concerns are moot. But they’ll still pound you with them. Under this fall the historical expert who isn’t. And the person who doesn’t read your genre but who nonetheless Knows Better. “This is not science fiction. In proper science fiction, like Star Trek….”
  • The questioner. This is particularly bad for sf/f. I fell for it once and almost killed a book. (DST.) This is the person who thinks you should have an explanation for every act of magic or instance of non-existent (and sometimes existent) technology. “But how does anti-grav work? When was it invented? You must tell us.”
  • The moralist. This critter confuses your characters with you and tries to tell you you’re all wrong. For instance, a story in which a man was so neurotic/confused, he lets a woman be dragged off in front of him got me accused of “supine cowardice” by one of these critters. (He also inferred my character was gay, which he wasn’t, but that’s beyond the point. Oh, and that was wrong, wrong, wrong too, and how dare I.) These people often belong to the traditional religions and sometimes to new credos. I’ve gotten blasted for using “ecologically unsound” materials in a novel. (No, seriously. Hey, the only trees killed are to print the novel, and that’s if it’s not an ebook.) I’ve gotten yelled at for having characters in high heels. (Females, even.)


This is not an exhaustive list, just a place for me to remember some of them. Right now, we’ll take on Pov violations, because it ties in to last week.


First, yes, there are POV violations, Virginia. I sometimes catch myself committing them, and they’re very hard to catch. Sometimes only a reader in ten sees them. That said, readers who are looking for them see a lot of them that aren’t there.

The pov violations that exist are usually glaring. I slip into them when I’ve been reading Romance, which does not consider them violations and uses them everywhere.

So, for instance,

“She felt her heart melt as he looked at her with those longing eyes. He was thinking about how great she’d look making him a sammich.”

That’s a pov violation because you jumped between heads. You’re either in her head or his.

In romance, though, that’s how you write. You don’t even wait for the paragraph break to switch. In SF/F… don’t do that.

At least don’t do that if you’re sending to traditional publishers and/or if it hurts the narration. How can it hurt the narration? It’s hard to build tension when you don’t stay still. Say you’re the guy driving down the street, who hits a girl, but you’re also the girl who is fine, and the dog turning the corner who wonders if he can get pets, and…


Second, these things aren’t pov violations, but I’ve had their like flagged as such:

She looked cold. He wondered if he should give her his coat.

He was sweating. The postman wondered if it was from heat or worry.


A lot of people think that if you have something from another pov in the middle, it’s a pov violation. Hint: it’s only a pov violation if it’s something the head you’re in couldn’t have known. If someone is sweating, you can see it. Also, if someone looks cold.


In the first instance, if you have “she was cold” and he’s not touching her, then that IS a pov violation and you can fix it to something like “she looked”.


Third, don’t be afraid of a little violation in the right place. Yes these are violations, but they’re not egregious, and not committing them will make your story heavy as concrete just to establish basics.

So, take a third person close in, like this:

A rendez-vous With Death

The wind bit Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen’s exposed face, whipped his white silk scarf into a frenzy.

He didn’t notice.

Hunched forward, Manfred, the Red Baron, held the control stick of his airplane in his right hand, moved his square-tipped fingers in a well-practiced way, simultaneously controlling the flight of his plane and firing both of his front-mounted machine guns at the fleeing enemy plane.

Far beneath Manfred’s plane, a persistent fog obscured the trenches and the men in them to an altitude of three miles.

Manfred had done his time in the trenches and he would prefer death in the cold, clean air above the clouds to life in the damp mustiness, the sluggish boredom, of the trench.

Despite the cold and the wind that, intensified by the speed of his flight, made the red-painted plywood frame of his plane crackle and groan, Manfred felt warm.


His heart beat fast and his pumping blood made his pale-skinned face glow.

His right hand squeezed the buttons on the control stick, his thumb pressed the button that fired both machine guns at once.

I’m clearly in his head, so how can I describe his hands and his skin color. SURELY he’s not thinking of that. Well, no. But he IS that, and if you don’t describe that, there’s not enough for the readers to latch onto. And having him look at himself on the fuselage or something will remind you it’s a narrative FAR more than those discrete POV violations.

Sometimes you must make the best of what you can and break the rules a little, in order to speed things along. If you look at published things, you’ll find a ton of these. Kris Rusch taught me early on “it’s better to violate the pov and move on, than to have an obvious contrivance to tell us what your character looks like, in a scene that is there ONLY for that purpose.” As in most writing things, she was right.


Another acceptable violations is camera pov in the beginning. I’ve never seen this in a first person, but PTerry often uses it in his beginnings. You set someone in a time, place, universe, and then you drop into your character’s head. I can’t remember a book where I’ve done this, though I’m sure I have, so I’ll just improvise something:


If you’ve never been to planet Earth, you haven’t missed much. It’s a ball of mud and muck floating in space, just far enough from Sol to catch a bad case of life. On a continent in that world, in a country called United States, in a small town called Manitou Springs, perched on the edge of a great big rocky ridge, Bob lay asleep and dreaming.

He was dreaming of elephants. He moved beneath the covers, trying to find the right way to climb the dream elephant, his mind walking the savannah….. etc.


Okay, got it? Questions?


Filed under Uncategorized

From final version to e-book

Last week, we discussed formatting your manuscript. As I said then, you can set your formatting from rough draft on or do it after you’ve finished all your edits. I tend to do it from the beginning because I’m lazy and don’t want to have to go back and change formatting before starting the conversion process. But that’s just me because I’m lazy and don’t want to format something what would effectively be three times (draft, final for e-book and final for print). Twice is more than enough for me.

So, now you are ready to convert for e-book publication. (Print will come next week). I’m going to assume you’ve finished your final round of edits and have set up your formatting to what you think will look good. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that you are going to direct upload to Amazon and either direct upload or use an aggregator like Smashwords or Draft2Digital to upload to Barnes & Noble and other outlets.

Before starting the conversion process, do one final check of your manuscript. Click on the Show/Hide icon (it looks like the copy editing symbol for paragraph). That will show you every tab, return, space, etc. in your document. Make sure you have no tabs or soft returns. If you do have a tab, delete it and use the first line indent option in your paragraph formatting box. For soft returns (which happen when you hold down “shift” and then hit “enter”, they can be problematic in converting, so delete them and replace with a standard return. Also, if you are publishing through Smashwords, do not have more then three consecutive “returns”. The meatgrinder reads multiple returns — I think four or more — as a page break.

One final formatting note before we get to converting. If you, like me, learned to type back in the dark ages, you learned to put two spaces after a period, question mark, colon, etc. Don’t. The new standard is a single space. You can change this by simply doing a search and replace.

Now, here’s the question everyone seems to ask. What programs do you need to convert your manuscript for upload to Amazon and the other e-tailers. Honestly, all you really need is your word processing program. Amazon and most of the other e-tailers allow for upload of a DOC file and then they will convert it for you. If you check the FAQs for the different platforms you are uploading to, you will find a list of formats they accept for conversion. For example, Amazon will accept the following formats: DOC, HTML, MOBI, ePUB, RTF, TXT and PDF. For the love of Pete, do NOT use PDF. You will have nothing but headaches trying to get a good MOBI file from a PDF. For an example of how Amazon views the different upload options, check here.

(Amazon’s format for its readers is MOBI or AZW. B&N, Apple, Kobo, etc use ePub.)

If you upload a DOC file, be sure to follow the formatting instructions for each of the different platforms. For an example of Amazon’s instructions on how to format your DOC file for successful conversion, go here. It doesn’t really offer you much guidance but if you follow the formatting guidelines I posted last week, you will be ahead of the game. This is also where I will warn you that if you are uploading to Smashwords, all bets are off. They have their own formatting requirements that basically toss out a lot of the time saving procedures we used last week. Instead of using the Styles menu for your headings (like chapter headings), there are other steps you have to take if you want to have an active table of contents. You have to either manually place bookmarks and hyperlinks in your manuscript or your have to start every chapter title with “chapter”. (IIRC, I hate Smashwords so I don’t use it unless I have to. Check their style guide for the latest information.)

This is where I tell you that I like seeing how my book will look in the format it will be sold in before I upload it. I also believe that there is less of a chance of conversion issues if you upload a MOBI file for Amazon and an ePUB for the other outlets. I know lots of folks who have no problem uploading HTML or DOC files, but this has been the process that works for me. So how do I do it?

The programs I use in my conversion process are Word, Atlantis and Calibre. I have Sigil on standby in case I need to tweak the ePub file. Here’s the step-by-step I follow:

  • Save my final version of my manuscript in DOC format,
  • Open it in Atlantis and save as a new DOC file. (The reason for this is that Atlantis will strip out a lot of the offending MS Code that can sometimes interfere with a clean conversion). Atlantis is a paid program but is relatively inexpensive. I don’t write in it but it was worth the $40 or so I paid to help cut out some of th headaches I ran into when a file went between several different computers and word processing programs. You can find out more about Atlantis here.
  • Still using Atlantis, you will click on File -> Save Special ->Save as Ebook. This will export your DOC file as an ePUB file. It will also open up a new dialog box where you will add your product description, author, key words, rights, etc. It will also allow you to embed your cover image and tag it as cover. So, be sure to have the Amazon KDP tag page open so you can make sure you are maximizing your exposure on Amazon by using the right tags.
  • Once you have your ePUB file, open it in either Adobe Digital Editions or another ePUB program. Do not use emulators because they will not always show you an accurate version of your file. You are looking for several things here. You want to make sure your active table of contents works and takes you to the right “page” in your e-book. You also want to make sure your e-books looks the way you want it to. Do your chapters all start on new pages? Is your formatting consistent? Are your first line indents too wide or not wide enough? This is your chance to tweak your e-book before uploading it and putting it on sale. It is a pain but look at every page and make sure all your links are there.
  • If you see any problems with your e-book that are basic “coding” problems or minor content problems — ie, you saw a spelling error while checking formatting — the easiest way to deal with it is to open your ePUB file in Sigil. I like Sigil because I can edit the underlying HTML code or do minor text editing without any problem. (Note, you can skip the Atlantis step if you save your DOC file as an HTML-filtered file and import it into Sigil.)
  • Once your ePUB file looks the way you want it to, you are set to upload to B&N, Apple and KOBO. You can also upload an ePUB file to Smashwords. However, the caveat is that you will only be able to sell ePUB versions of your title on Smashwords and at elsewhere if you choose to use their “expanded catalog”. You can also upload the ePUB to Amazon for conversion to MOBI.
  • However, to be sure you are not going to run into conversion problems, go ahead and convert your ePUB file to MOBI for upload to Amazon. That will let you see just how your book will look before you upload it. You can do this using Calibre. This has the added benefit of letting you make sure your tags and other baseline information is accurately saved into the underlying HTML of your e-book. Calibre will also let you tag your book as part of a series and put in the edition number if needed. And, just as you did with the ePUB, once your have your MOBI file, check it with a native MOBI reader like Kindle for PC or by checking it on your Kindle or Kindle Fire. Once satisfied, you are ready to upload this file to Amazon.

It sounds like a lot but it really isn’t. I can do the entire conversion process in a matter of minutes — excluding the time taken to check the files to make sure I like the converted product.

As with most everything in writing, there is no one “right” way to convert your book. Just be glad the days of having to hand code the HTML are long past. Find what works for you.

One last comment. The key to making e-books is to make them look as much like a “real” book as possible. So look at printed books and see what makes them attractive. Look at other e-books and see what you like and don’t like about them when it comes to layout and formatting. And keep notes. If you are writing a series, you want the e-books to have the same “feel” or “look” from one volume to another. Fortunately, it is now easy to change that as needed.

Next up will be the parts of an e-book. What do you need to make sure you have in your file before you upload it. We’ll also talk about setting up your accounts with the various outlets and whether or not you should use an aggregator and which one should you choose.


Filed under E-books, publishing

On the book world and writing, again, and again

I must admit my heart and mind are not really focused on this post but on the hostage siege in Sydney. Here’s hoping that it ends well for the hostages, as badly as possible of the terrorist, and worse for his ’cause’, beliefs and supporters. I suggest remembering Kipling in this situation on appeasement, and giving them what they want. “And that is called paying the Dane-geld; But we’ve proved it again and again, That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld You never get rid of the Dane.”

And by not doing what I usually do, I’d let the shark-shite win.

So: to return to the book-world. A few ‘interesting’ posts this week about the industry in general I see poor struggling Douglas Preston is trying to enlist the government in keeping the Gatekeepers in place and himself and his likewise favored darlings pampered and rich. I see he thinks we lesser types dare not speak against Amazon. I wonder if he’d ever dare speak up against Hachette for us? The big publishers have done us far more harm than Amazon (and that’s without having any trust of Amazon), and authors really do NOT dare speak truth to those powers. Plenty have been openly abusive about Amazon. Given the leanings of those powers, and their history, I can only hope that their political favorites lose any power, or we’ll be straight back into publishing feudalism. Which is nice if you’re one of the nobility like Preston – who I notice didn’t mention Amazon’s various offers to ameliorate the damage to Hachette authors (all turned down), but not much fun for peasants like me eating mud and apple peelings.

Secondly I see Hachette entered into a deal with Gumroad to sell books apparently via twitter. I’m going to look into Gumroad in my ample free time – unless someone else on MGC is kind enough to do the hard yards. I see they charge a mere 5% (Amazon is 30%) for their services. So: anyone like to give me odds that 1)none of the extra money will end up with the Author. 2)None of the potential saving will go to the readers. 3)The prices will continue to suck.

Thirdly I thought I’d bring this ‘trends’ article up for discussion. I notice sf isn’t even there. I wonder if it was too small or they consider it a subset of fantasy? I do wonder what shrill squeals we’d be listening to if e-book sales to women were 35%. It should worry anyone who has a daughter who they hope will one day marry a man who reads, but then perhaps they are not worried about that. I would be. I hope by the time I have grand-daughters old enough to look for a male partner firstly they can find one, and secondly, he’ll be a decent bloke, the chances of which increase markedly if he reads.

Now, on the subject of writing. A short comment but one I think worth making. There is always someone who will like your writing. In a perfectly connected world, matching tastes with providers, there will be readers who would the enjoy Eye of Argon, Clamps, ET (go home) and Frau Blucher’s non-binary PC efforts. Maybe even enough for them to make a living on. It’s a big world, but at the moment we’re not that well connected. There is a lot of luck (not all of it) involved. There are many good writers who could be popular but never hit the right time and place. I guarantee there are another slew of books every bit as good as Harry Potter, or 50 Shades of Taupe that just hit wrong, so not having got it doesn’t necessarily make your writing inferior. Remember, writing instructors, and even other authors are neither arbiters nor judges. The truth be told, if they have to do that to earn a living… they’re probably not very good at being popular writers themselves, even if they win boatloads of awards. There really is only one measure of popular success and that’s money, and not even the good necessarily get that. Publishers can help with publicity. So can various social media.

There are may things you can do wrong of course, and we’ll talk about those too.

But without trying, again and again, you have no chance at all.


Filed under Uncategorized

The unspoken (and unwritten) word

Hi. I’m filling in for Sarah, who’s eloped for a weekend away from people with her husband (who clearly, it seems, doesn’t qualify as people). In order to let her sleep late this Sunday, I’m writing this in her stead. If it helps, just think of me without the beard, somewhat thinner, and wearing a dress. (Don’t tell my wife!)

In working on my latest book, I’ve been struck once again by how much we unconsciously bring to the table as writers. Due to our own background, experiences and ‘formation’ (for want of a better word), we make certain assumptions about things that are unspoken and instinctive. When we write, those assumptions carry over into our world-building, characters, dialog, etc. – but the trouble is, someone who doesn’t come from the same environment that spawned us won’t necessarily realize the assumptions are there. Will the book work when parts of it (sometimes large parts) aren’t elaborated, leaving the reader to guess what inspired or prompted certain actions or dialog or developments?

I think there are several ways of looking at it. The first is that readers come to books with their own background, experiences and ‘formation’, and will supply what the author doesn’t provide by instinctively ‘filling in the gaps’ from their own world view. This may produce comprehension that’s rather different from what was intended, but there will be at least some degree of understanding.

(Of course, this can backfire… I remember in high school studying Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Having [by then] a well-developed sense of the ribald, thanks to a father who’d served in the Royal Air Force through the war and wasn’t afraid to tell his son about it, I could identify the sexual innuendo sprinkled throughout the play [see Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra in her barge for some of the most thinly veiled pornography in Elizabethan England]. However, our English teacher [an older and very proper lady] would have been utterly scandalized at the thought that her beloved Shakespeare could have meant anything of the kind. In this case, her authority meant that her world view took precedence, whether or not Shakespeare would have agreed – and whether I liked it or not.)

Another approach is for us, as writers, to recognize that some things have been left unsaid, and deliberately choose to keep them that way. Instead of explaining why certain views are held or espoused, or certain actions are necessary, we simply lay them out as given facts and don’t try to persuade or convince the reader of why we think they’re important. If the reader accepts them, all well and good; if not, they can supply their own perspective within which to interpret them. I don’t like this approach, but that’s me. Other authors use it all the time, and it seems to work for them.

Then there’s the ‘infodump’ approach; putting everything in so that the reader can see exactly why certain things are important, what gave rise to them, and what the characters propose to do with, to or about them. David Weber is perhaps the principal proponent of this approach in modern SF.   Personally, I find it a turn-off; I’d rather not have all that ‘backstory’. However, as Weber’s extraordinary and ongoing popularity demonstrates, that’s not a universal opinion by any means. I’ve been accused of ‘infodump’ myself, which I find worrying. I’m working hard to minimize it and build world-view and scene-setting into actions and events rather than paragraphs of description. I’ve still got a long way to go, I’m afraid, before I get it completely right.

How do you handle this conundrum? Let us know in Comments. Are there approaches I haven’t outlined above that work better than those I have? I think we’ll all benefit from sharing our joint and several perspectives.


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Covering Your Book: Part 1

The art of covering a book, as part of the MGC practical series we’re running for a week or three.

We’ve talked about this many times, here and elsewhere. I think last time there may have been an epic troll war in the comments section, which I’m hoping to avoid this time. I’m going to do this in two parts, this one being the preliminaries, and next week, a hands-on tutorial style how-to create a cover. Something I’ve come close to doing before, but in a little more depth this time.

There are multiple things going on with a book cover. I’m going to focus on front covers for now, and if enough people want it, come back to spines and back covers later. Let me know in the comments.

First, you have to understand what a cover does. It does not convey a real scene from your book. Now, I’m not saying that if your heroine is a blonde, it’s ok to have a brunette on the cover, but I am going to say that the cover does not need – and indeed, SHOULD NOT be a faithful representation of something from inside the book. Instead, your cover art needs to convey a sense of what’s inside the book, as a whole. Your cover sends subliminal cues to your reader, whether they ever stop to think about it, or not. Is your cover very pink (or purple)? Probably a romance. Barechested male on the front? Probably a romance. Exploding spaceships? Whoops… probably not a romance.

But then you get down to even more subtle signs than that. There’s a spaceship, and a star scene, and a abstract representation of a face in genetic code… probably hard SF. One thing you will never, ever see on the cover of a legitimate SF or fantasy book is a photograph. It’s always an illustration. Only with Romance can you get away with a photo.

How can you tell what your cover art should look like? Well, the first thing I tell anyone I’m consulting with on cover art is to go to Amazon and search for your subgenre. Not the entire genre: all of SF is too broad. On the other hand, western space opera cowboy… that might come up with something more usable. Or simply dystopian SF, or… you get the idea. Now, look at the top 100 paid titles in that subgenre. You will see a certain pattern appear as you do so. We aren’t saying you should copy anything faithfully. But you ought to find the overall pattern, and make your art fit into it, because this is the unseen cue that tells your reader what they can expect when they start reading.

Yes, it’s difficult when your book doesn’t fit neatly into a genre. I know this… my Children of Myth series is both fantasy, and SF. I have opted to go with something that looks more fantasy, as it’s closest to the core of the stories. wolfling

Now that you have a mental idea of what works – and not before this! Trust me, you will fall in love with an unsuitable piece of art, and that will only end in tears – you can go to a reliable site and look for stock art. Yeah, yeah, I know. You want an artist who will faithfully and lovingly render the perfect scene for you, with the biometrics of your main character perfectly aligned with your mental picture of them, and… you can’t afford it. Original art justly costs an arm and a leg, and until you are a blockbuster in the sales department (and then you can come back and write a guest post for us telling us how you did it!) you can’t justify laying out thousands of dollars on an artist.

If you find an artist who promises you cheap art, you need to get references – are they reliable? Will they deliver, or vanish with your cash? Are they capable of creating professional level art? – and you need to have a clear understanding of what’s being delivered. If you’re paying someone $50 to do a cover, you will get what you paid for.

So, stock art. You know what you are getting, with a minimum of skill in a graphics program you can tweak it to make it uniquely yours if you are worried about someone else having the same cover, and it’s very inexpensive. I recommend GIMP to most people for tweaking, and the text design a bit later, as it is freeware, there are a ton of tutorials available, and it’s not that difficult to learn. (Shh, all you out there. I’m teaching myself Adobe Illustrator, I don’t want to HEAR how hard you think Gimp is)

Those of us at MGC who do covers highly recommend that you don’t just grab a random piece of art you found on the internet. For one thing, you don’t know where that came from. It may be under copyright – most likely is – and you can’t just slap it on your cover and go. Whatever you pick must be licensed for commercial use. Make sure to attribute the art inside your book. Artists, like authors, have to eat and pay bills, and they can’t do that with stolen art.

For me, I can take bits and pieces of stock art and fuse them into an original creation. This is, I know, not that easy for most folks. And done badly, it’s almost worse than that teenage artist you found. I’ve seen some pretty bad cover art that was created from poorly joined stock pieces. However, there is hope.

Dollarphotoclub is just what it sounds like. A huge collection of stock, both illustrations and photos, which you can search for the right piece. Dreamstime is another good site, although pricier. For free stuff that will take a little more work on your part, try Morgue File. For small elements, I use Open Clipart. You need to keep a couple of things in mind as you are looking.

One, sometimes a photo can be modified to be used as an illustration. We who do this a lot and buy pro-tools like Filter Forge for this. But if you aren’t ready to lay out over a hundred dollars on a program, there are other options. I’ve seen some interesting results with Pencil Sketch, which is freeware. Gimp has manual filters you can layer on (just one won’t do, in this case) until it no longer looks like a photo. So keep that in mind as you browse.

Second, you need to make sure there is enough room for text without interfering with important art elements. The layout of the art, portrait or landscape, isn’t terribly important right now, because you will likely be blowing it up and shifting it around until it looks good, anyway (Oh, yeah, you need to be looking at high-resolution art. Minimum 300 dpi, to be able to use on print covers. Unless this is a short, and will never be in print. But KDP still has quality requirements). But there has to be room for text, which is arguably more important than the art itself. You also don’t want an overly-detailed piece of art. Most readers get their first impression of your book from a thumbnail sized image on the computer screen. Too much detail gets lost, interferes with the text, and looks muddy.

Next week, we have the art, now what? Or: the most important thing on the cover of a book is your name. Make it bigger, I said!


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And then we unleash the volcanoes!

Today’s ramble does actually more or less fit in the whole how to theme we Mad Geniuses are running. Of course, it’s a Kate-fit, which means I haven’t found the damn box yet.

It’s kind of fitting that the title comes straight from Girl Genius  because if you want to look at carrying a plot over a long and apparently disconnected series of short pieces, the better web comics are a good place to look, and Girl Genius is one of them.

As always the medium dictates the best way to impart the message, and shapes the message to some extent: I don’t know the writer who could describe the expressions in the good web comics, and it would be a really bad idea to try. That’s not where the payoff is in a book.

So, a few quick Kate-finitions (like definitions only weirder). The payoff is what, in a web comic has a reader coming back regularly to check for new content and buying the merchandise and so forth. In a book, it’s what keeps the reader turning the pages and brings them back when they have to put the book down. And convinces them to buy the next book by that author. It’s the delivery of enough pleasure mixed with anticipation and suffering to tease the reader into coming back for more.

The medium is a bit simpler: it’s the way the story is told. Web comics are a mix of visual and verbal. Books are verbal. Art works are visual. Theater is aural and visual. And so forth.

The message is even simpler: it’s the story (not to be confused with Message which is something preached at the poor reader from an authorial soap-box and should not be forced into anything. If you feel strongly enough about a topic it will find its way into your stories – but it will feel natural there because it will slide in as part of what one of your characters believes). Some stories work better in an all-verbal medium. Others do better in a mixed medium.

Web comics (the good ones) have an added advantage: the best ones have been running for years with an ongoing plot line, characters who change and grow, and payoffs if not every strip then most of them. It’s kind of like writing a novel a couple of hundred words at a time, with a mini-story each episode, and doing this for years. I’m not joking about years, either – Sluggy Freelance has been running since August, 1997. Schlock Mercenary since June, 2000. Freefall started in March, 1998. Like Girl Genius – which started in November, 2002 – they all have a payoff in most strips, plot arcs that can seem disconnected, but ultimately get woven into the main storyline, and on top of that you can see the way the authors/artists grow over the course of the stories. I’d personally rank Sluggy as the weakest of the collection – it’s the one most prone to fillers that don’t link in to anything and the quality of the different story arcs can be weak. The good ones can go from laughing to tears remarkably quickly.

It’s worth taking the archive dive if you haven’t already and reading through all of these (yes, that’s a lot of reading – and these are only the four I consider the best of the ones I follow. There is a reason the act of hooking a person on a new web comic is an act of rat bastardy extraordinaire (and why the person who does the hooking smirks when the hookee gives the traditional acclamation of, “You rat bastard! I didn’t need another web comic habit.”) If you’re remotely a pantser you’ll absorb a metric shit-ton of good storytelling in the process (not to be confused with the regular US shit-ton, which isn’t as large or as odoriferous).

I should mention that good storytelling isn’t necessarily the same thing as good plotting. A good storyteller can make a paper-thin plot compelling (but you don’t want to do that). The art lies in doling out the payoffs just often enough to keep the reader following with tongue hanging out, like Eliot leaving the M&M trail for E.T. Too far apart, and the reader gives up and stops chasing. Too close together and the reader doesn’t see a need to bother looking for more. Get the mixture right, and they’re yours for as long as you keep trickling out those payoffs.

Oh, and the volcanoes? Save them for the big confrontation near the end, where they’ll have the most impact. Never unleash the volcanoes too early.


Filed under inspiration, writing, Writing Craft

A Matter of POV — novel writing workshop

Every time I hear someone discuss POV I feel like I’m back in Portugal and around the kitchen table with a bunch of women arguing over what to name the baby.

Opinions are tightly held, make no sense, and are supported with a lot of stuff about how this is the only ONE TRUE NAME you can give the baby.

Some people say you shouldn’t write books first person because that’s amateurish. Yeah. Them and the donkey they rode in on, with pineapple on top and a funny hat. Go look at, oh, They Walked Like Men, arguably Simak’s best work. Go on. I’ll wait. Noted the person in that, right? Now go and pick up any book by Heinlein, Rex Stout… In fact most of the books of science fiction and more than a few of mystery. Not all, just a majority.

Now you can tell me those books lacked sophistication. I’ve heard NYC editors diss Agatha Christie (who wrote mostly but not exclusively 3rd person) to make themselves sound cultch’ured and all. Let me tell you, the woman sold more books of her worst book than most of the mega successes have sold of their best books.

So, is first person amateurish? Depends. Is it being written by an amateur?

As someone who read a lot of fanfic in her day, all povs can sound amateurish. The thing to watch out for when writing first person is to make sure you’re not writing YOU. Not unless you are the most interesting man in the world. (And we know you’re not. That’s MGC’s own Peter Grant, sorry. His wife is the most interesting woman in the world. So you’re at best a poor third.)

But then in the third person you can also write yourself, and I know someone who writes himself extensively into his third person books. So—

If you’re writing first person it requires something like acting talent. You need to put the other person on and let the voice come pouring out of your fingers.

One of the hazards of this is that people who aren’t professional writers will assume that you ARE the person you’re writing. The number of people who think I’m Athena, from Darkship Thieves, is astounding. (And wouldn’t last if they knew I’m both afraid of heights and have no sense of direction.)

What first person buys you is a sense of… reality. You’re being told a story by this real person sitting across from you. That’s great if your character is engaging. It’s also REALLY useful if you need to lie to your reader.

Lie to your reader in third person, and the reader is going to be REALLY upset. But lie to your reader in first person, and the reader is going to not notice he’s being lied to, because the head he’s in didn’t see things that way.

This is particularly useful in mystery where the character might casually mention the bloodied knife, then go on to obsess about hair curlers. The pointing finger moves and the reader with it, completely forgetting the knife, particularly if the person goes “that knife had jam on it or something, but the hair curlers weren’t in the bedroom.”

So first person, if you know how to use it, gives you greater narrative control and a greater chance to play with the reader’s mind. OTOH it takes away your ability to do certain things, like show someone from an unbiased (not your character’s) perspective.

For that you need third person. Third person exists in three forms. The first is omniscient and it’s rarely used in traditional publishing any more. By omniscient you should understand it is the POV of the eternal observer. You see into everyone’s mind and heart, and know what is happening everywhere in your world. You careen from head to head shamelessly and you tell us things none of the characters know. This is often used in Romance, btw, but nowhere else in traditional publishing.

It reads something like this: Bob snarled, but in fact he was scared. Mary didn’t know this and thought he looked very disagreeable. Little did both of them know that they were only being used in a tiny little example, and that once the author was done mentioning them, a meteor would hurtle out of nowhere and pulverize them.

Again, this is not used anywhere but in romance in traditional publishing. However, it seems to do well in indie, and hey, it was the default telling mode for decades when books were doing far better than they are now. If you want to give it a spin for your indie book, take a whirl.

The other pov is what I call “third person close in.” This means that while telling that character, you confine yourself to his/her thoughts as though it were first person. And you render thoughts directly or in Italics. Like thus: I’m such a loser, Bob thought. Here I am at last, after years of apprenticeship in the head of a real writer, and she’s only using me for an example. He sighed, as he pushed aside his coffee cup, accidentally spilling coffee all over the cover of his How To Be A Real Character manual, which he’d bought on discount on ebay. He thought the book would never be the same and sighed. It was just like him to mess this up too.

This is different from third person objective which is more like: Bob set aside his manual on how to be a real character and glared at it as though he hated it. He picked up a notebook and tore open the first page. “Dear Mary,” he wrote. “I’m tired of being a failure. No one will ever write our immortal love story. I’m sorry. Bob.” Then he crossed the room in long steps, opened the window and jumped out onto non-existence.

Now the disadvantages of a third person somewhat mitigated by the close-in is that you can’t really lie to the readers very easily.

The advantages is that you can show the story from multiple points of view and thus escape the point where the story gets slow.

Say you start with Bob:

  • Bob jumps out the window and discovers he’s inside Sarah’s computer.

(there follows a boring part of Bob actually wandering around touching things, but that’s not where you need to be. Instead you go to: )

  • Mary is wondering where Bob went. She casts a spell to find him.

(Mary actually has to grind some ingredients and stuff, which is boring, so you go to Bob: )

  • Bob manages to crawl out through my thumb drive and gets chased by a cat.

You see what I mean.

When you’re doing multiple points of view, here is some things to remember:

  • Remember to have a main character or at most two main characters. You might very well have eight points of view, but the main characters should stand head and shoulders above in both interest and the time they take. We should know what the principals of the book are.
  • All characters should be interesting. The secondaries shouldn’t be so interesting they upstage the main characters, but they should still interest the reader. This means they must have:
  • They must have their own challenge, their own ideas, their own desires, their own something to accomplish by the end of the book.
  • In the interest of maintaining the emotional integrity of your book (remember that books are self-contained bits of emotion – a packaged emotional experience, if you will) have the characters’ journeys parallel each other. For instance Rome and Juliet is a tragedy of haste. All the characters have/want different things, but they’re all in a hurry to do/get/become something.
  • In the interest of the self same emotional experience, have all the characters hit high and low points in quick succession, particularly with the lowest point (black moment) and the climax.
  • Remember to take advantage of multiple POV. Not just to leave people hanging, as in: Mary screamed tied to the rail road ties. // Chapter break// Bob was running down the road, wandering where the scream was coming from. And was that the sound of a train?

Also, show the antagonist setting the trap. It’s much more suspenseful to see the girl combing her hair if we know the evil gobbling is hiding under her vanity with a sharpened stake in his hand, ready to pounce.


That is all that it occurs to me to tell you about POV. And at this point I’m going to throw it open to questions.

What else do you need to know about writing a novel?


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