Recently, I ran into an advertisement for a book cover contest. I don’t usually try entering contests. The need for structured competition feels a tad bit ridiculous to me. I have nothing against people that enjoy competition. It’s just not for me. I prefer keeping an internal tally of my improvement over what I’ve done before. Competing with people I believe are my betters in my mind, can sometimes motivate me.
Keeping up motivation through a competition is the hard part. The way it’s supposed to work, doesn’t work for me. Nonetheless, I followed the traditional structure. First, I amped myself up with the thought that I would win. Every time I wanted to stop, I braced on that mantra, I’m going to win. And there was always fear. If I didn’t win, I would be crushed, and I’d never want to do something like that again.
Anyway, I had to design a special edition book cover for Dan Brown’s next book, Origin. The rules were simple. Include some text and make it the right size. Choosing what cover design to make was the difficult thing. If I supremely made a cover of something they didn’t want, it wouldn’t matter how good it looked. I could design anything I wanted. Making something they wanted as the cover was the hardest part. I needed details on the book. Those were sparse. Origin is the sequel to Inferno. Origin was about modern art. That was everything we got.
In addition to entering the contest, I wanted to learn Adobe Illustrator. I had two months to submit a book cover. I choose what to make. I decided Origin was about something Biblical like the other books in the series. I knew the protagonist would be Robert Langdon. And modern art. I wanted to make a cubist picture of a guy for the cover. Then add the text and block out behind it, like a reversed redaction.
I started. First, I made a reference image from stock I found on Unsplash.
I drew shapes.
I merged and divided shapes so everything was at a depth of one layer.
I colored the squares.
I made shadows.
Finally, I blocked out the text.
I combined all the layers.
Ultimately, I didn’t become a finalist. I learned a lot and probably won’t enter another book cover design contest again. My cover was over-designed. I frequently over-complicate things. The focus wasn’t the legibility of the text. I focused too much of the cover picture. If I make another book cover, I’ll fix all that stuff. And my design wasn’t what they wanted.
I’ve never been drawn to reading memoirs, autobiographies, personal essays, or creative non-fiction. It feels to me that people can say almost anything in those literary forms. Selectively choosing moments that fit into the conventional craft of writing fiction. It’s like those movies based on true events. The screenwriters dramatize the story and your left wondering what exactly happened and what was changed for dramatic effect. The truth is always elusive and that genre really makes it too apparent for my comfort. And anyway, my life is far from typical, muscular dystrophy, mediation, immigration, and intense emotion. Maybe that’s just a little too much ego there, but that’s the starting point.
Around a year or two ago, things started to change. I discovered Medium for the first time. Medium is this micro-blogging site taking off right at the moment. It was a hidden writing community when I first joined. A lot of things changed from that time. Getting sold to Facebook and the introduction of membership. Medium specializes in creative non-fiction, point of view pieces, and lastly, fiction. Now it’s shifting to listicles like the rest of the web, sadly. Throughout this post, I’ll link out to the best articles I’ve read on Medium.
I went there from a link on Facebook, originally. I don’t read news frequently, and Facebook mentions are what I go by. Reading the news feels too real for me. I logged in and found a few stories, not in the news like the refugee crisis in the Middle East. A POV piece by Piper Perabo visiting a midway point in the refugee’s path. That happened a few times.
Then I dived into the creative non-fiction and POV. It was a window into the life of women. Medium has a surprising number of things I had never been exposed to in my entire life. Pieces about the bad experiences that a ridiculous number of women have gone through, sexual violence. Things like rape, unwanted sexual attention, harassment, inappropriate gestures, and trouble with mostly men.
My thoughts were astonishment. For a really long time, I couldn’t figure out how women even functioned in society. How could people get out of bed with the looming threat around every corner? Knowing it was virtually impossible not to run into someone that had done something like that in the past. It was unfathomable that was the case in 21st century America. This is America. How is it possible?
Sure we could blame so many things. The over-sexualization of American culture, women, and body image. But the cause isn’t the big issue. What can we do now? How do people still function?
Simple. By accepting the condition as it is now. Continue with life as it is. And wait for change. Is that really what’s going to happen? So far it has.
I’ve basically gone on a rant of incredulity for the last handful of paragraphs. Let’s return to the topic. What changed after discovering Medium? Not much. I subscribed and tried writing a few things. After that nothing really changed.
Then I read Eat, Pray, Love. I’d watched the movie ten years ago when it came out. I didn’t think it was a memoir. The movie seemed too neat to be real life. Everything fit perfectly together and smoothly transitioned like fiction. I’ve seen a ton of biopics, but it was never so neat. I happily went on for years, bought the book, and eventually read it. It had always been a memoir. The book wasn’t as neat as the movie, but the events were rearranged a little, to fit conventional storytelling craft. I kept merging the images from the movie with images I constructed in my head. Reading to me isn’t a series of phrase but a series of pictures based on the written text.
Liz started in New York and her messy divorce. The book spent way more time before the travel started. The mess with her rebound relationship. Then the happenstance of finding her guru and the Balinese Medicine man. With that, her travels began.
In Italy, there was so much more than food. Learning the language and living in a city for months. I never knew so much research went into a memoir. Liz explained why Italian is such a pretty language. I fell in love with Italian through reading it. I’ll admit, I wasn’t very enthused to read my first memoir. If Liz wasn’t so funny, I wouldn’t have finished it. I found the description of tastes wanting. I haven’t eaten solid food in years and wanted to imagine the tastes of Italy. The taste should run a few paragraphs in my mind. I was glad to see she asked the locals what was good. That’s the only way.
The Thanksgiving was a big difference between the book and movie. In the movie, they fell asleep in the dining room. But in the book, the turkey took way longer to cook than they expected. Turkey was for breakfast.
Then it was off to India and the ashram of her guru. India is a very spiritual place. The saying goes, you walk a few paces and run into a guru of some kind or the other. Gurus are that plentiful in bigger cities. Liz went to a remote ashram filled with foreigners and local devotees. I don’t agree with a few things. I have never learned from a guru and figured out meditation mostly in isolation. I don’t think a guru has to bless you to have a chance at enlightenment. Learning in isolation leads to a longer, meandering, and wandering journey to the same goal. Three months isn’t enough to learn a self-guided meditation practice. I have a lot to learn about describing meditation practices. When I try to explain meditation or my deep experiences, the person listening doesn’t understand what I’m saying. I’ve spent too much time in self-monolog and isolation, that explaining things in an understandable way is really difficult at times. Before writing a memoir on me, I need to learn how of write deep things in a way that other people get.
I don’t believe a set of holy words must be used as a mantra. A mantra should have the required associations in the mind. The final description of Liz’s experience with the divinity inside her wasn’t that clear to me. Some experiences can’t be put into words even by the best. I was nice to see the ashram through the author’s eyes.
The Bali part was about balance. I would state it as filling your life based on your loves. Whether it’s meditation, writing, and thought or meditation, love, and writing. Ketut and Balinese culture were strangely familiar to Indian culture and weirdly different. Liz had so many facts and peculiarities that I enjoyed reading. Meeting Filipe was interesting. Ex-pats are a microcosm of the world writ large if everyone wanted chill above all else.
Her dealings with Wayan, another healer, and Ketut, the medicine man were interesting. Sometimes Ketut didn’t remember some things. And Wayan was a rarity there. She was divorced. The family is really important in Bali and acts like a compass to help navigate the world. Wayan and Liz were both divorced. Then Liz finds a way to help Wayan and works through the hiccup associated with it. Ketut teaches Liz a few mediations and many life lessons.
The third to last chapter felt odd to me. It was a flashback to her first trip to Bali. Liz was silent for a few weeks on a remote island. She eventually discovered that her current life wasn’t working and she needed a change. It felt like an epiphany and it came in the right place. It was placed out of time, towards the end of the novel. The sequence of events in time doesn’t matter to the sequence of the memoir. The majority of the events should be in chronological order but a scene here or there is fine.
The memoir worked like it was supposed to. Reading a genre before writing in it is essential to the craft. Not sure which ones I’m going to read. I have no idea when I’ll even write a memoir. Everything is up in the air. I’ll work towards getting my deep experiences across on the page. Sometime down the line, I’ll try writing a memoir, maybe. Experience, Write, you know the rest.
Larry Brooks is a published author that has writing classes/workshops. In Story Engineering, he shows us what he teaches his students about writing fiction. Apparently, writing a screenplay is very easy in comparison. Books out there detail the rules required in an acceptable screenplay. Larry Brooks has brought that over to fiction writing. If you ignore the condescension of organic writes, the book brings a needed insight to novel writing.
Story Engineering starts with an argument against the formulaic nature of planning out a story using his components. The difference between art and putting matching things into a formula is the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant while reading it. That’s one of the few things not explained in Story Engineering. I figured out a possible explanation. The various story elements, concept, story structure, character, theme, writer’s voice, and scene construction have a synergy between them. Each element builds on another. For example, first person, solitary confinement, weak mental state, and being alone is inhumane. With first person, we are with the inmate at all times. There’s minimal interaction with other people. Add the weak mental state and there’s a compelling story. Add examples of what other inmates in solitary confinement come out as. That makes a pretty good story right?
Concept is the central question of the story. Story structure is the pacing of the story. The author does a really good job of getting this point across through the book. What plot event should happen at certain points throughout the story? Several movies and books are discussed as examples. Every book and movie I remember follows the plot events. I’m not sure about the timing yet.
Character is presented as a personality selector you would use in The Sims. Different characteristics that can be tweaked to show the universality of humanity. Figuring out how each characteristic affects the others is where the art part comes in. Then the character arc. That was completely new to me.
I use a few lines of research to understand how characters operate. First, observing people and imagining what goes through their heads. Talking to people and looking for the motivations. Deeply analyzing my psyche through meditative practice. And method acting in my head. What would this character do if that happened?
Theme is the meaning behind the story. The story can give an opinion or explore a question. Figuring out what to say helps put it into the novel.
Writer’s voice is something that needs to be discovered through writing and trying different things. Scene construction states each scene has a mission. The scene needs to be short enough to accomplish its mission.
Reading Story Engineering will forever change my novel writing. I was already close, and now I get it for the first time. Larry Brooks knows his stuff. Great book Mr. Brooks.
Betsy Learner is a writer, editor, and agent. In The Forest for the Trees, she offers a collection of sage advice for any writer, especially when you’re questioning your ability as a writer. Reading this book helped a lot. I’m on the right path and need to wo4k more before I get there.
The first half of the book identifies several different types of writers. There’s something in there for everyone. I identified with several things that matched. When I’m the most truthful and unafraid, my writing is at its best. Very few writers are naturally successful. The vast majority need to work really hard to get in and become something. The process of writing and getting good is a long process. Write, get feedback, make improvements, write, and repeat until you arrive. Throughout there are many examples from a ton of successful writers and how they got started.
The second half of the book is about the publishing side of things. Betsy tells us how she started and moved through the publishing world. These are my biggest takeaways. Sometimes you find a person that can voice your inklings about something you wrote. A good editor should also alight on those things. Query letters are replied in several ways. The first stage is a form rejection letter. Then a form letter with a little personalization. Third a personalized response and finally an acceptance letter. Seeing the process of traditional publication was like witnessing someone else living your dream. One day, that’ll be me. I’ll get there.
This is a gallery of everything I’ve done so far. This is basically my way of procrastinating and not doing the work of writing. This series on Photoshop is wandering a little too far from the goal of this blog. Most of these are from an up-coming anthology of my best writing in Remember. So here’s the gallery. Enjoy and click through to my Deviant Art page for full resolution.
Photoshop is the professional standard for book covers. The question used to be if Photoshop CC was worth the nearly absurd cost. For the first time desktop software leasing made sense. 6,000 bucks is unbelievably expense. Adobe’s Photoshop CC is now 19 dollars a single month or 10 dollars every month for a year.
The big question is do you really need Photoshop CC or will the consumer version, Photoshop Elements, be good enough? Photoshop Elements is missing a few things that I think separate something that looks professional and something that looks shabby. What features am I talking about? Blend modes and the opacity slider. The blend modes allow more control in the way image layer over each other. If composting two images is required, blend modes are huge. The opacity slider controls how strongly one image imposes on everything below. Another big one the text kerning or fine tuning the spacing and position of each letter. Almost every single book cover I’ve ever seen use kerning, stretching letter, composting, and blending tweaks.
Making a book cover requires a few things. Access to Photoshop, a book cover idea, a repertoire of Photoshop effects, and a collection of stock photos that can be used for a cover. The last one is the toughest if graphic design isn’t your day job. Look at this list over on Medium for free stock image sources. Check the usage rights always. Watch a ton of Youtube videos to build a repertoire of Photoshop effects. Look at an earlier blog post for book cover ideas. Now we have everything we need.
Photoshop isn’t a daunting thing to learn. The entire process is basically the tweaking and playing around with sliders governing everything in there. You can be artistic or not. It all comes down to comparing an image before and after every change that’s made. What looks better to your eye and such.
I’ll show something that I stumbled into while trying to do something else. I had this image. I wanted to add another image around the color gradations (one color changes to another). I tried making a highly detailed mask by copying the picture and getting the difference from the original slightly shifted. That got me something strange. It looked like an interference pattern.
I tried removing the color from both. Didn’t work. Then I started playing around. Trying every possible combination of color and no color, each blend mode, opacity level. Something along the way looked interesting. That’s how this happened. More details here.
In two weeks, I’ll post a gallery of everything I’ve done so far, photo-manipulations and book covers. Another fiction post coming up soon.
(For those of you that haven’t heard: Ella Dawson is internet famous for various reason. Being an optimistic person, fighting for a better future, her writing, and blog make her famous.)
Dear Ella Dawson,
You are a great person. You have an optimistic outlook for the future interaction between different people. Despite the opprobrium, you continue to fight for your vision of the future. There is no reason for the stigma against STI’s except personal fear.
I learned about you through a creative non-fiction piece you posted on Medium. It, put simply, was amazing. Your simple, clear language brought an extremely complicated concept into focus. It drew me in and gave me something to think about. A quote stuck with me. “it sits on my tongue like a sugar cube” That phrase so clearly depicts what was going on. I knew from that moment, I had to learn everything I could from you.
I was only previously affected by heavily literary works like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. This pulled my earlier writing too far in the flowery, literary direction. This trend caused confusion and reduced my potential audience. For a relatively unknown author like myself, too much complex language becomes a problem. I needed a new goal. Didn’t Mark Twain say something about simple language?
I started reading your WordPress blog from the beginning. That Medium piece was too advanced for me to see the underlying technique. I needed more and earlier writings. The second blog post about your college thesis caught my eye. It was a definition of feminist sex writing. Basically, you were saying the feminist part comes in when the writing questions the social mores around sex. For example, what constitutes acceptable sex? What types of relationship work and how do they function?
A really surprising thing happened. I had been writing a book for the previous 6 months that started to ask those questions and provide what I believed were my answers. I have never tried to label anything. I find it extremely frustrating to squeeze myself into boxes. I stopped trying long ago. That definition you provided was something new, expansive and inclusive.
I also read a book you reviewed and liked. It gave me a window into your preferred genre. Reading helps me figure out what fits into a genre, the characteristics that make something good, and the established boundaries. Finally, I look for what works and try to incorporate those into my own writing.
The three short stories you guest blogged on Exhibit A gave me a chance to learn about your approach to writing fiction. I read Homecoming first. The relationship descriptions were so on point. ‘There was some Peter Pan syndrome to explain why she was here, lurking in the back of the library at just after midnight.” The story was real. There were the good things and a little grunge on the edges. The entire piece was about familiarity and comfort.
Camille was great in a different way. I left it with this picture of Camille through the eyes of another. I imagined a petite woman possessed with unbelievable strength. The true description of a character should be by someone that loves this person. A couple of lines stuck with me. “She reached out with one of her tiny hands and brushed his hair out of his face, and she smiled as she poked some of the freckles littering his cheek. He grabbed her wrist and kissed her thumb.” That last line felt especially real to me. I suspect that originated from an actual experience. This story had a fierceness to it, paired beautifully with reverence.
The last one was Slush. It felt a little angry, frustrated, and wrapped up in itself, but isn’t that the way some relationships go. The two people are stuck between the end of psychological intimacy and the end of everything. The entire thing was evocative and filled with emotion. Your use of simile was superb. “Anger keeps them tangled like the links of a snagged chain. She knows eventually something will give and let them swing free with stunning ease but that day has not come yet.” I have yet to crack that.
A prerequisite to creative writing is going to different places and seeing ordinary, more importantly, relatable things. Having those physical experiences also helps. Consider those the raw materials for simile. Instead of loosely associating like with brainstorming, jump through ideas with an over-arching similarity. I can do that in social interaction but not yet in writing. Asking what could be a simile for things I’ve written about and things I feel, might be exactly what I need.
The metaphors were educational. It’s the precursor to the things that wowed me in that creative non-fiction piece mentioned earlier. “They used to love each other. The memory is a splinter driven too deep in her palm to dig out with tweezers: a dull and irritating hurt, worsened by the temptation to pick.”
Handy mnemonic device. A simile is like Red (Taylor Swift, Red). A metaphor is Clean (Taylor Swift, 1989).
Awesome writing. You are doing good things, not that anyone has to say it. Hopefully, everyone will see that soon. Keep fighting the good fight. Rock on!