Thursday, November 20, 2014

Eating Crow and Reading E-books

I'm an unapologetic technophobe.  I don't own a cellphone and my computer is more than ten years old.  I'm also a bibliophile, and by this I don't just mean that I like to read.  I love books.  I love the smell of them, the feel of them, the weight of them, and I consider a well-bound book to be a treasured possession, not just to be read but to be displayed on a bookshelf, like a painting in a gallery.  Such was my disdain for e-books that it was only reluctantly that I decided to publish the Libram Mysterium anthology series in digital as well as print formats.

These things considered, you'd think I'd be the last person to buy an e-reader.  I certainly thought so.  Turns out I was wrong.  My unwholesome dalliance with digital books was initiated by the alarming groans of my overladen bookshelves and the realization that I was quickly running out of places to install more.  My bedside table has become the permanent repository for a stack of books I'm no longer reading for lack of anywhere better to put them, and leaning towers of literature are stacked precariously about the house just waiting to topple over and crush the cat.

Simultaneously, about a year ago I started experiencing chronic eye pain every evening, which made reading a grueling ordeal instead of a relaxing escape.  I went to the optometrist for a check up and he assured me that my date of birth was to blame.  To put it simply: reading bring pain.  Great; yet another reason to pine for the '80's, as if rugby pants and ZZ Top weren't reasons enough.

So week by week, month by month, the idea of an e-reader festered in my brain like a cancerous tumour.  E-readers use e-ink technology that makes the screen look just like a printed page, which can be read even in direct sunlight, and you can adjust font size.  Also, with gigabites of memory I could store an entire library on one device without any threat to the cat.  The tumour reached critical mass last week when a coupon for $40 off the Kobo Aura arrived in my in-box, and I decided to take the plunge.

So here's my take on the Kobo reader for anyone who, like I was, is on the fence and/or deeply suspicious of new technologies like horseless carriages and such:

After a few days to get used to it, I am completely enamoured with my Kobo; it is the single solution to all of my problems.  It has 4 GB of memory - enough to store a very large library, and if that's still not enough, there is an SD card slot for extra storage.  I was initially concerned that a mishap might destroy my entire library, but there are several levels of redundancy to keep your collection safe.  Any books bought from Kobo can be permanently archived on their cloud and accessed at any time - you can even move books off your reader and onto their cloud if you need to free up space.  Furthermore, you can store books on your computer, using Adobe Digital Editions to manage your collection.  Also, most sellers of e-books, such as Smashwords, will allow unlimited downloads of previously purchased books so if you do drop your reader in the toilet you can easily replace your library.

Reading with the Aura is a real pleasure.  I find it easier on the eyes than a printed book, and I can read for much longer without needing to take a break.  One of the great features of this model is the adjustable back-lit screen, which allows you to read comfortably at any lighting level so I can keep reading in bed long after my wife has turned off the lights and gone to sleep - something I've been wanting to do for twenty years.

Another neat feature of the Kobo readers is their compatibility with Pocket, a browser add-on that allows you to save web pages to your reader.  I like reading blogs, but reading at the computer makes me bleed out of my eyes until my head explodes.  Now I can save blog posts to my reader and peruse them in comfort and ease, which will make for a much pleasanter experience.

Kindle vs. Kobo?
These are the two main readers in Canada (Nook isn't available here), aside from third party readers like Sony.  You can get equivalent models of each, but the difference lies in their supported formats.  Kindles only read Amazon's proprietary Kindle format, which means you can only use their reader to read books purchased from Amazon.  They are supposed to be able to read PDFs, but most users report difficulty doing so.  Because Kindles only read their proprietary format they cannot be used to read library books, which are in epub format.  Kobo, on the other hand supports epub, mobi, pdf, rtf, etc so you can borrow books from the library, and buy books from anywhere except Amazon.  The only real disadvantage of the Kobo is that you cannot buy books from Amazon, which cuts you off from a pretty large seller.  Nonetheless, being able to borrow books from the library without ever leaving the house or worrying about late fees (the books automatically delete themselves from your reader after the loan period) offsets any possible advantage the Kindle might offer.

E-reader vs. Tablet?
Tablets are another popular device for reading electronic documents and both Amazon and Kobo make tablets as well as e-readers.  Tablets have the advantage of a colour display, which is better for reading magazines and newspapers.  But they do not have the e-ink technology used by readers, so reading for long periods of time on a tablet will be just like reading on a computer (ocular hemorrhaging  and wall splattered with grey-matter) and glare makes them difficult to read outdoors.  So if you plan to read books, then the e-reader is the device of choice.

So there we have it: I love my Kobo reader and I've taken my first tentative steps into the digital age.  But I'm still not buying a cellphone.

Monday, September 22, 2014

It's Coming!

I've just finished designing the cover for Libram Mysterium Volume 2, an all-horror issue that should be out in time for Halloween (but, really, isn't any time a good time for horror?).  This volume features stories by Libram alumni Garnett Elliot, Josh Graboff, Alasdair Cunningham, Alex Christy, and Matthew Bottiglieri as well as stories by authors new to the fold: Lisa Buckley, Mary Quijano, and S.M. Okeyb.

It's been a lot of work, but I think this anthology will rival or even exceed Volume 1, and I can't wait to get it out the door.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Read The Tomb Robber's Tale in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly

I just wanted to let everyone know that my recent short story, The Tomb Robber's Tale, is published in the current (August 2014) issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (follow the link above to read it for free).  If you aren't familiar with HFQ, it's a fantastic online magazine that features the best in weird fantasy fiction and anyone interested in the genre should definitely be following it.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Review: The Whitechapel Demon

Readers of Libram Mysterium will undoubtedly recognize Josh Reynolds as the author of the excellent short story, Mordiggian's Due.  Josh is an incredibly prolific writer who, in addition to numerous Warhammer and Warhammer 40K tie-in novels for Black Library, has written a huge number of short stories, many of them featuring the exploits of Charles St. Cyprian, the Royal Occultist.

The Whitechapel Demon is the first novel in The Adventures of The Royal Occultist series, and was my first introduction to Charles St. Cyprian, an occult sleuth who holds the office of Royal Occultist, which was established in the sixteenth century by Elizabeth I for John Dee.  Put simply, it is the duty of St. Cyprian and his apprentice, Ebbe Gallowglass, to counter supernatural menaces that are beyond the conventional scope of His Majesty's government; a duty that pushes them to their limits when cultists of the Whitechapel Society attempt to call up the spirit of Jack the Ripper and instead attract the attention of something far worse: a demonic entity that wriggles its way through non-Euclidian angles and into our world.

The Whitechapel Demon fires on all cylinders and has everything that I love in a story: mad cultists, sinister demons, compelling characters, and frequent dashes of humour.  Josh deftly balances setting and pace, firmly grounding the novel in 1920 London while carrying us from scene to scene maintaining dramatic tension along the way.  This is no easy thing to do, but the story is so eloquently written that it is easy to forget you're reading a book and not careening through the streets of Whitechapel in the rumble seat of St. Cyprian's car with the hounds of hell breathing down your neck.

The characters are equally well-written.  St. Cyprian is a suave and charming Oxford man, an occult scholar, and veteran of the Great War who has his own inner demons to battle in addition to those conjured up by malfeasant miscreants.  His counter-part, Ms. Gallowglass, plucked from the mean streets of Cairo, is quick on the draw with sarcastic remarks, vulgar gestures, or lethal volleys of gunfire as circumstances demand, and she is an excellent foil for her mentor: a pugnacious and irascible Watson to St. Cyprian's Holmes.

It occurred to me while reading this book, that The Whitechapel Demon might especially appeal to lovers of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game.  While the book only dances on the fringes of Lovecraft's mythos, St. Cyprian and Gallowglass are archetypal mythos investigators, particularly in campaigns that are focused more on keeping the forces of darkness at bay than on nihilistic existentialism.  In any event there is enough common ground here that fans of Lovecraftian horror are likely to also enjoy the Adventures of the Royal Occultist.

Learn more about the Royal Occultist by visiting Charles St. Cyprian's blog.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Berni Wrightson: Master of the Macabre

One of  my many (too many?) hobbies is drawing.  In fact I had once considered pursuing art as a career, having studied it throughout high school and even in University.  While my life ultimately took a different path, I have maintained an interest and although it has been decades since I've done any painting or sculpting I do continue to draw.  Pen and ink is one of my favourite drawing mediums, although lately I've been rediscovering the pleasure of brush and ink as well.  I don't want to bore you or embarrass myself by posting my own amateurish drawings, but I would like to show off some of my favourite pieces by one of my greatest inspirations, Bernie Wrightson.

Wrightson is best known for his comic book illustrations and his career has spanned decades.  He gained a great deal of prominence illustrating Warren Publishing's Creepy and Eerie magazines in the 1970's and also worked for DC and Marvel comics as well.  I first became aware of Bernie Wrightson's work by way Swamp Thing, the character he created for DC comics back in the '70's.  I was only a child at the time, but I really dug the creepy and tragic story of Swamp Thing and while I didn't really appreciate Wrightson's art on the same level then as I did in later years, it definitely put him on my radar.

It probably wasn't until 1983, when I bought the Marvel illustrated edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, that I truly came to appreciate Bernie Wrightson's artistic genius.  I was seventeen when this edition was published and just the right age to be influenced by the meticulous detail of Wrightson's drawings and his macabre aesthetic.  The pen and ink drawings in this edition were completed over a seven year period and Wrightson wanted them to look like period pieces - to resemble wood cut or steel engraved prints instead of hand-drawn illustrations.

I recently purchased Dark Horse Books hardcover collection of Bernie Wrightson's stories from Creepy and Eerie magazines.  Among the many stories that Wrightson wrote and illustrated for Warren Publishing, this collection includes Wrightson's wonderful adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe's The Black Cat from Creepy #62 (May, 1974) and H.P. Lovecraft's Cool Air from Eerie #62 (January, 1975).

The illustrations shown above are only a tiny representation of Bernie Wrightson's prolific career but they are some of my favourite drawings, the ones that both inspire me and remind me that I have no talent, whatsoever.  That's okay, because the world only needs one master of the macabre and that master is Bernie.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Auspicious Beginnings

The most important part of a story is its first paragraph.  If you don't grab the reader's attention right away, chances are they aren't going to stick around, and writing an evocative and intriguing hook is a sure way to make them turn the page and keep reading.

There are lots of ways to write a compelling first paragraph; some stories begin in media res, others rely upon evocative description to set the tone, or to introduce the protagonist and their dilemma right from the outset, but however it is done, the goal is to immerse the reader in the story immediately.  The wrong way to do this is to lead off with a lot of exposition.

This is probably one of the most common mistakes made by inexperienced writers (and sometimes, unfortunately, by experienced ones, too).  I would say that at least 80% of the stories submitted to the Libram Mysterium anthology series begin with a history lesson.  I think that there is a misperception, especially among writers of speculative fiction, that you need to thoroughly explain your setting and its history before the reader can make sense of it.  This is wrong: the reader doesn't need to know everything right at the start, doesn't want to know everything right at the start, and shouldn't be bombarded with an information dump when they are still in the 'getting to know you' stage of the relationship.

Imagine you're at a party and you've just met someone that you might like to get to know better.  If they immediately launch into a lengthy and detailed narrative of their life history with all sorts of intimate and personal details are you going to want to stick around and continue the conversation, or are the chips and dip starting to look really attractive?  It's too much information too early in the relationship.  This is all stuff that you'll probably want to learn gradually as your friendship deepens, but learning all in the first five minutes is weird and awkward and it will bore the crap out of you.  Instead, when trying to impress a new acquaintance you should try saying something witty and interesting, maybe even something controversial so that, instead of tuning out, they respond by saying 'what do you mean by that?'

Being a writer is a bit like being a stripper.  Your job is to entertain by teasing and titillating your audience; you show them a brief glimpse of what lies beneath with a promise of revealing more as show progresses, and it is that promise that keeps them in their seats.  If you walk out onto the stage stark naked and shake your naughty bits in their faces they have very little reason to stick around for the rest of show and they might even be turned off by the crassness of it.  There is a reason that level of exhibition is left for the finale when the audience is primed for it.

Here is the opening paragraph from a book called Dragonfly by Frederic S. Durbin.  It is probably the best opening paragraph I have ever read:

Bad things were starting to happen again in Uncle Henry's basement.  These were things that had happened before, when the wind swung round, when the trees all felt the blood rush to their leaves after the exertion of August and the idling of September; when the chuckle-dark harvest moon shaped pumpkins in its own image, brought its secret wine flush to the scarecrow's cheeks; when the rich bounties of the land lay plump for the taking and the light left them alone for longer and longer at a time.  But when the trouble started before, I was too young to remember.

This paragraph is pregnant with promise.  The very first sentence, 'Bad things were starting to happen again in Uncle Henry's basement,' is a powerful hook.  We know that bad things are happening.  They are are happening in Uncle Henry's basement, and they have happened before.  Those first eleven words are loaded with implication; immediately you want to know what the bad things are.  You want to ask Durbin what he means by that.  You want to learn more.  Durbin has hooked you.  Then, while you're still wondering about that he hits you with some evocative imagery that not only sets the scene but also hints at the nature of the bad things, which we can guess take place around Halloween.  We do find out in the subsequent pages what happened in Uncle Henry's basement years before, which is great because by the time Durbin tells us we are already invested in the story and are dying to find out.  If he'd begun the story by telling us what happened in Uncle Henry's basement we wouldn't have cared and probably wouldn't keep reading.

Handling exposition in a story can be tricky; the information is important, but you need to exercise restraint when doling it out, just like the person at the party.  It is better to reveal information little bits at a time instead of dumping it all at once, which can overwhelm the reader, and as a general rule it is better to show the reader the information than tell them.  This can often be achieved through dialogue or activity, but be subtle.  Don't resort to the heavy-handed 'as you know, Bosworth' type of forced expository dialogue that lazy television and movie writers inflict on us.  Reveal the information slowly and naturally and don't be afraid to let the readers fill in some blanks for themselves.  Part of the fun of reading a story is figuring out what is going on from the hints rather than being told.

But however you decide to write exposition remember these guidelines: 1) not too much, 2) not too soon.  And whatever you do, use your opening paragraph to entice your readers, not to bore them.  Be the stripper; get us worked up and aroused by taking your clothes off a little at a time instead ripping them all off at once.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Getting off the Sidelines and Into the Fight

During the 1970's the neighbourhood I grew up in was pretty rough, especially for small children.  Roving gangs of bullies, miscreant juvenile delinquents, and a serial killer were the realities of my childhood that I needed to deal with.  Wariness was a habit I cultivated at a young age; I was careful not to take the same route home every day and I always tried to spot the bullies before they spotted me.  Most of the time I was successful, but sometimes not and on those occasions I'd come home bloodied and beaten and angry with myself for getting caught.

On my seventh birthday my parents gave me a swim mask and snorkel as a birthday present.  Our family didn't have a lot of money and this was a big deal to me; it was what I wanted more than anything in the whole world.  That evening I went to the park to try out my gift at the paddling pool, and I was excited and happy and not paying attention to my surroundings like I should have been.  So I didn't notice the group of teenagers behind some bushes in the park until it was too late.  They took my mask and smashed it to bits.  They also held me down and burned me with cigarettes, but that didn't hurt nearly as much as losing my birthday present.  I didn't blame the teens who did this nearly as much as I blamed myself.  They were nothing more to me than environmental hazards to be aware of and avoided, and as far as I was concerned, at least at the time, it was my fault for running into them, just like running into a lamp post or falling into an open pit - a consequence of my inattention.

Another one of those environmental hazards was David Threinen, a pedophile who kidnapped and murdered four children in Saskatoon between 1974-1975, including my friend, Robert.  Around that time a man, whether Threinen or a different predator, tried unsuccessfully to lure me and a couple of my friends into his car.  Afterward, the three of us agreed that this guy was most certainly a kidnapper (we were about nine-years-old and I don't think we knew what a pedophile was) and that he would probably have killed us if we'd gotten into his car.  But I don't recall any of us being shaken up by the incident - it was just another threat dodged and quickly forgotten, drowned out by the background noise of ever-present dangers.

School was no picnic, either.  I was an introvert and more interested in books than in sports, which made me abnormal in the eyes of many of my teachers, and their disdain was taken by many of my classmates as tacit approval that it was okay to pick on me.  My naive trust in authority was shattered early on by a principal who took a particular dislike to me for reasons I never learned.  She would often pull me out of the hallway and into her office then threaten me with a big leather strap (corporal punishment was still practiced then) and accuse me of all sorts of absurd things.  I felt scared and confused and betrayed, and I didn't realize until much later that she was just another pathetic and cowardly bully who got off on terrorizing little boys.

Since my natural inclinations trended more towards the academic than the athletic, I was drawn toward activities like science fairs and Future Problem Solvers, which, at my school, only girls were allowed to participate in because, as I was repeatedly told by my teacher, 'girls are smarter than boys.'  Didn't I know that my proper place was on the hockey rink?  This prejudice may not have been the norm at most schools, but it certainly was at mine and it was infuriating to be denied the chance to pursue my interests and aptitudes simply because of my gender.

So my daily grind consisted of getting to school by way of back-alleys and side streets to avoid notice, suffer through seven hours of incarceration at the Sutherland Elementary School Correctional Facility, followed by another dash through no-man's land to arrive home, hopefully without being terrorized, beaten to a pulp, or killed.  Then I'd get to spend a few all-too-fleeting hours holed in the comfortable book-filled sanctuary of my bedroom before having to do it all again.  Wash, rinse, and repeat every day for eight years.  It was an almost unbearable existence that fortunately faded away as I got older, and by the time I grew up it was all just an unhappy memory.

If you have a Twitter account you have no doubt read at least some of the many, many posts made to #YesAllWomen, and even if you don't you've probably heard about it.  Many of the posts these women made struck a familiar chord: their experiences reminded me of my childhood.  Except that while I got to leave all that shit in the past once I grew up, many women have to keep dealing with it their whole lives.  I'd like to say that I can't imagine what that must be like, but I can.  Some of my past personal experiences that are similar enough that I can at least partially empathize and understand what life as a woman might be like.  I'll never truly understand what it's like to walk a mile in their heels, but I probably come just about as close as a heterosexual white Canadian male can.

My first inclination was not involve myself in this discussion and instead follow the old saying: 'better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.'  This is often good advice, especially when you don't know what you're talking about and in this case opening ears and shutting mouth (or, more accurately, given the nature of the medium, opening eyes and bestilling fingers) is preferable to a hasty knee-jerk response.  But after pondering for a while I realized that I can't sit this one out; I have to weigh in.

When I was a kid getting beaten on, I recall that most of the toadies that trailed along after the bullies weren't really bad guys.  Left to their own devices they probably wouldn't be inclined to pick fights or torment anyone, but they would gravitate around an alpha bully, follow his lead, and pile on to whatever target of opportunity he set his sights on.  They might hold your arms while he beat the crap out of you, and they might kick you a few times when you were down, but this was mostly for show.  Most of these guys were scared and joined in to avoid becoming targets themselves.  Then there were the spectators; they didn't join in but they also didn't speak up and they certainly didn't intervene.  They, too, didn't want to call attention to themselves.  One time on my way home from school, I came upon a couple of guys beating up my best friend.  I joined in the fight reckoning that if I evened the odds maybe we could fight them off, and if not at least my friend wouldn't have to stand alone and outnumbered.  Unfortunately, once his attackers focused their attention on me, he left me holding the bag and joined the bystanders to watch me get beaten bloody.  I didn't care.  I'd rather stand up to the bullies and get beaten than watch from the sidelines.

One of the common knee-jerk comments made by men responding to #YesAllWomen is that 'not all men are like that.'  Of course they aren't, not even close.  But statements like that are a defensive response made by guys who may not be abusing, harassing, or discriminating against women, but they sure as hell are standing on the sidelines watching.

We hear stories of violence and discrimination against women every day, but often it gets drowned out, like all those dangerous encounters in my youth, by the background noise of the perils of daily existence.  They get lost against a backdrop of shootings, stabbings, unrest, environmental disasters, dirty politics, and the distracting antics of Rob Ford.  But when you filter out the noise, which is what #YesAllWomen is doing, you can see just how pervasive misogyny is in our society.  Just this morning I was lying in bed listening to a report on the CBC news of a young woman in Saskatoon who was kidnapped and beaten by her fiance when she tried to return his ring and break off their engagement.  This sort of thing happens every single day.  And that is in a comparatively tolerant and egalitarian society like Canada.  It doesn't begin to compare with countries where women are stoned to death for having extra-marital affairs, threatened or killed for trying to get an education, or imprisoned for the crime of being raped.  When 50% of the world's population is being singled out for persecution (more if you consider other disenfranchised groups, like homosexuals, who are also denied the rights many of us take for granted) this not a women's issue, it's a human issue.

It isn't enough to just be the guy who isn't abusing women.  War is being waged on our friends, our wives, and our daughters, and it's one that they cannot win on their own.  This is a battle that must be fought by men.  I won't be a toady and I won't stand in the crowd watching from the sidelines.  It's time to wade in and start swinging because I'd still rather take a beating than let a friend stand alone and outnumbered.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Review: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

I've found that the very best stories usually hook me with the first paragraph.  Sure, some books start slow then pick up steam (or not), but I've rarely seen a book start strong and then go downhill.  So I'm always delighted when I find a book whose first lines make me want to keep reading: I just know that there is a good story to follow.

Such was the case with the first book in Jonathan Howard's Johannes Cabal series, which I recently bought on a whim because I liked the cover.  And, fortunately, as soon as I read the first paragraph I was reasonably sure that I had not misjudged the book by its cover:

Walpurgisnacht, the Hexennacht.  The last night in April.  The night of witches, when evil walks abroad.

It was short, it was sweet, and it set the tone for the rest of the book.  This is the story of Johannes Cabal, a thoroughly callous and self-centered scientist who has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the secrets of necromancy.  Now he wants it back.  Cabal journeys to hell to barter with Lucifer and makes the following wager: he has one year to consign one-hundred souls to damnation or lose his own for eternity.  Satan doesn't send Johannes away empty-handed, however: he lends him a long-abandoned carnival train to help him on his quest.  Cabal, an anti-social introvert, considers the prospect of running a carnival more of an ironic punishment than a boon.  One sympathizes.  Imagine the character of Sheldon Cooper, from T.V.'s Big Bang Theory (or me) forced to rely on personal charm to seduce unwary patrons into signing away their souls and you will have a good idea of just how out of his depth Cabal is.  Satan doesn't like to make these wagers easy, otherwise everybody will be wanting one.

This book was inspired by Ray Bradbury's classic, Something Wicked This Way Comes, when Howard wondered where an evil carnival would come from.  In Johannes Cabal the Necromancer he sets out to answer this question.  The story is cleverly and eloquently written and is laced with sardonic wit that is likely to appeal to fans of British comedies such Black Adder.  Indeed, were this book ever adapted to the screen, I can't imagine anyone better than Hugh Laurie to play the title role.  Cabal is an unapologetic misanthrope who is more than willing to sacrifice anyone, even his own brother, Horst, to achieve his goals and who won't hesitate to kill anyone who stands in his way.  Yet we are allowed, on occasion, to catch ephemeral glimpses of the good man locked deep within who gives us hope that despite Cabal's rapid moral deterioration, redemption might not yet be beyond his grasp.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer may not be to everyone's taste, but if you have a love of the macabre and an off-colour sense of humour that makes normal people stare aghast, then it might just be for you.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Cover Stories

I've been thinking a lot about book covers lately.  They are the first and often the only chance of getting a prospective reader to stop browsing long enough to check out the blurb and maybe the first page, and decide whether they want to lay down their cash and keep reading.  We've been told since childhood that we shouldn't judge books by their covers, nor people by their appearances because beauty is only skin deep.  Yet we do it all the same.  How many wonderful books go unnoticed and unread, languishing behind an uninspired cover?  How often have you been tricked into picking up a vapid, shallow, badly written book because of a striking cover and discovered that you've been tricked into wasting both your time and your money by another pretty face?  A striking cover is no promise of quality, just as a person's attractiveness is no measure of their character.  But without a good cover it's unlikely that many people will ever discover your book's merits.

So what separates the good covers from the bad?  I think there are a couple of factors that may contribute to an effective cover: one is an implied narrative, another is layout.  Cover illustrations often tell a story in their own right; preferably one that pertains to that which lies within.  It isn't absolutely necessary for cover art to tell a story, but if it does it should be an honest and accurate one - some covers are disingenuous and promise one thing but deliver another.  I recall being often disappointed, in my youth, by publishers in the 1970's who all too often pulled this bait-and-switch tactic to sell paperbacks.  In those days all a publisher had to do was slap a Frazetta painting on a book and it would sell.  I should know - I'm the one who bought them.

Contrary to the implication of this cover on the Ace edition of Edgar Rice Burrough's The Cave Girl, there are no spear-wielding, sabre-tooth-tiger-taming, fur bikini-wearing amazon women in it.  It's actually the story of a gentleman who was shipwrecked on an island and who discovers a young woman who was similarly stranded as a child.  They have some adventures after which he takes her back to civilization and marries her.  The Frazetta cover version looks more exciting though, doesn't it?

Here's the cover of the Pinnacle edition that hits a little closer to the mark:

Which of these two editions would you be more inclined to buy?  Yeah, the publishers at Ace thought so, too, and they were undoubtedly right.  The question, though is whether you want trick readers into buying a book once, or to deliver what you promise and cultivate a loyal fan.


The cover of The Man in the Iron Mask depicted below is an example of a poor choice in cover illustration, not because the painting is bad (although it is drab and not especially eye-catching), but because it has absolutely nothing to do with the story.  Philippe was incarcerated in the Bastille, not the crumbling ruins of a tower in the remote countryside.  I have a feeling that this illustration might have been stock art that Signet had on file, and that they decided it was close enough to save them the cost of commissioning art specifically for the book.  Of course, since The Man in the Iron Mask is a classic it doesn't really need a flashy cover to sell it.  Indeed, I bought this book despite the cover, not because of it; I was at the book store specifically looking for The Man in the Iron Mask.    Most books don't have this level of fame going for them, and I have to wonder how many more people might have bought this book if it had a better cover design to catch their eye.

Irrelevant Cover

On the other side of coin there are books whose covers are so appealing that I'm predisposed to buying them before I've even read the blurb to find out what they're about.  Mind you, a well-designed cover should give you a good idea of what the book is about before you even pick it up.

Here's a book I bought last week solely because of its cover:

It was the layout of the book more than the actual illustration that grabbed my attention.  This book makes an excellent argument for self-publishers to hire a professional cover designer instead of trying to make the cover themselves.  The cover alone translated into a sale.

Here's another book I bought about a year and half ago based solely on its cover:

I never get tired of looking at the illustration of this book; not only is it very clever, it communicates a great deal of information about the book.  This is probably one of the best cover illustrations I've ever seen in terms of its aesthetic appeal and implied narrative.

I'm very pleased to say that both of these books lived up to the promise made by their covers: excellent stories that were every bit as much fun to read as their covers suggested.  So sometimes I guess you really can judge a book by its cover.

I hadn't really thought very deeply about what makes an effective cover when I was forced to design one for Libram Mysterium; my ruminations have been subsequent to the book's publication.  When I did the cover I was rushed and behind schedule and trying to juggle too many irons at once.  Nonetheless I'm quite pleased with how it turned out and somehow, by intuition, I managed to produce a cover that is visually striking and is faithfully suggestive of the types of stories that the reader will find within.  Of course I was very fortunate to have Christopher Conklin as the artist.  He not only drew all of the interior illustrations, but also made the cover painting on very short notice.  One of the truly groovy things about working with Chris was his ability to take just a few lines of description and produce a picture that was exactly what I wanted.  I'd tried to keep my instructions minimal and somewhat vague in order to give him creative space, but he nailed the image I had in my mind's eye every single time.

In any event I feel more confident that I understand the elements that make for a great book cover for the next time I design one.  Acquiring the technical skill to pull it off is another matter...

Friday, May 23, 2014

Fourty Years of Rubik's Cube

Believe it or not, this week marks the fourtieth anniversary of the invention of  Erno Rubik's famous puzzle cube, originally known as the Magic Cube, that has vexed millions of people to the brink of insanity.

I should know: I've been trying unsuccessfully to solve it for thirty-four years.  I received my Rubik's Cube (shown below) as a gift back in 1980, just when the cube was becoming popular, and it has been a constant fixture on my desktop ever since.  The very same cube sits beside my keyboard today and I still pick it up and fiddle with it every day.  The most common reaction that I get when people discover that I'm still working on the thing is why I don't just look up the solution.  Cheat books were very popular in the '80's and I'm sure that nowadays the solution is just a Google search away.  But solving the puzzle isn't really the point of the cube - not to me, anyway.

The cube is not just a puzzle, it's an aid to concentration that I play with whenever I'm stuck on a problem, and as I twist and turn the rows and columns on the cube to line up the colours, the tumblers in my brain click into place.  This same cube has gotten me through high school, a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, and a Ph.D.  It has seen me through algebra homework, English essays, term papers, and study sessions.  I've played with it while working out taxonomic conundrums, plot twists, and character development.  Whenever I'm stuck and in need of mental distraction my cube is ready at hand to provide it - my trusty weapon in the never-ending war against writer's block.  A magic cube, indeed.

I have a feeling that if I ever did solve the cube, it would no longer have the power to amuse and distract me. My talisman would just be another puzzle solved then forgotten, tossed aside and never played with again.  And that would be a shame.

"This is my Rubik's Cube.  There are many like it, but this one is mine."

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Constructing a Platform - It's Not Just for Hangmen Anymore

I've been insanely busy formatting Libram Mysterium for various print and electronic formats and it is now available in print at Amazon, in electronic format at Amazon Kindle store at Smashwords, and in print and PDF at DriveThru Fiction.  In fact I've been spending so much time fussing with the book that I haven't made any time to do any actual writing of my own - including blog posts.  But my mid-year resolution is to change that and try to get onto my next story as well as making active blog posts.

Of course now that I have a book to promote I have to spend a lot more time marketing it, and that involves getting more actively involved in social media, like I need to spend even more time on Facebook instead of getting any writing done.  At least now I can justify it: I'm not procrastinating, I'm building my platform!  Honestly though, I'm not sure how people manage it.  Between writing blog posts, updating Facebook and LinkedIn a big chunk of my writing day gets claimed before I've even started.  And, as of today, I've bitten the bullet and joined Twitter.  I've been avoiding this for years since it's always seemed like the height of egotism to think that anyone would be interested in my tweets.  But they tell me that it's an essential tool in the writer's platform.  And by 'they' I mean all the various people whose opinions about book marketing I've read on the internets.  When has the internet ever been wrong?

So if you have any interest at all to bearing witness as my head explodes from social media overload you can find me on Facebook , Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.  And because I have Pulp Mill Press to promote I've got a Pulp Mill Press blog, Google+ and Facebook page for that, too.

The old expression, 'hoist by your own petard' dates back to the sixteenth century and it means to be blown up by your own bomb, referring to petards that were used to breach castles exploding prematurely, killing the man placing it.  You can see the parallel?  I may end up hanging myself from my own platform.