Thursday, 11 May 2017

Writing Resources - your cover designer and you

People tend to think of cover design as something that happens after the book is finished; perhaps contemporaneously with edits and revisions, but certainly after the draft is complete. And yes, that's usually so. But it doesn't always have to be.

Perhaps this doesn't apply so much to full-length novels, but in shorter fiction, your cover designer can be an amazingly useful resource while you are writing. I discovered this by accident.

Years ago, I was struggling to write a short story for a competition I wanted to enter. I had a sort of basic concept which involved the overthrow of a particularly nasty office bully. The contest rules called for the story to contain three elements - a page torn out of a calendar, a paragraph from The Moonstone, and raging jealousy.

Rather than try to work those things into a story, my approach was to consider the three elements and let the story form around them, crystallising like one of those chemical gardens children make with copper salts and what-all. But somehow it wasn't quite coming together, and I moaned about it to my friend, as one does.

My saviour that day was that my good friend, whose shoulders have borne so many of my writing woes, is also my cover designer, Patti Roberts, of Paradox Book Covers. Patti's all about the covers, and her response to my dilemma was to create a cover for the story. This is it:

I loved the cover so much. The office bully (shown on the right) was not at all like my original concept for the character (I was writing from life), but I accepted the change, and suddenly the story took life in my mind. The character I based on this picture really worked in the story. All of a sudden I had a plot that worked, driven by the particular nature of the character I based on the woman in this picture.

I don't know what would have happened without the timely intervention of Patti and her cover. I suspect I'd either have written something not nearly as good, or perhaps I'd have missed the deadline. That would have been a pity, as I won a prize, but more importantly, my little win with Sophie's Revenge gave me the confidence to tackle writing more short fiction, of which back then I had done hardly any. And looking back over the time since then, and all the short and long stories I've written, they've brought me so much enjoyment, and have allowed me to experiment with all kinds of techniques and different genres. If there's one thing that's made me grow as a writer, I'd say it's been writing a lot of short fiction.

Of course, with a full-length novel, everything is often very clearly specified at the outset, when you finish your outline. But it's worth considering commissioning your cover early, rather than late, in the process. There is another obvious benefit to this. If your cover is going to depict people, objects and so on, there will be all kinds of details about those people or objects that don't really matter to the story, but will be described, or at least mentioned, as you write. Having your cover early in the game allows you to fit that part of your writing around it, avoiding long wrangles with the designer at the other end - 'no, it's perfect but she's supposed to have red hair', and so on. It can also surprise you with the little touches of texture you can find in it. For example, there was nothing in the contest specifications about plants, but the touches of greenery in Patti's cover prompted a chain of thinking that gave me the character Sophie Green, and I've used her again and again; to date I've published three short stories featuring her, and I have a novella in progress. One day I may bring out a Sophie Green collection. Of all my fictional characters, she is my favourite. And without Patti's cover, she would very likely never have existed.


Don't miss the new book in my Operation Tomcat series. Operation Badger will release on 1 June, on both AMAZON and SMASHWORDS, and can be preordered at either site.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Value of Reading

I often see arguments in certain writers' groups about the value of reading to a writer. Not all groups, of course, but one sees this cropping up again and again in the less selective groups.

Not only do people disagree about this, but I've seen the arguments get quite acrimonious. There is a school of thought that believes reading and writing are entirely separate activities. Not the physical mechanics of reading and writing, of course; those are obviously different, but the overall acts are viewed as two completely separate activities rather than as different modes of engaging in a single greater activity (literacy).

There will be no prizes for guessing on which side of the debate I can be found. Not that I ever get into these arguments personally. I do tend to note the passionate anti-reading advocates and make a mental note not to expect anything sensible from them. However, let us not descend to abuse.

I'll be addressing the value of reading as applied to life in general, and to the various stages of the writing process.

Life, Generally.

Why is it, do you think, that the first thing we teach a child is reading? It's a rite of passage as important, in its way, as walking, talking or toilet training. It is the final step in transforming your baby from an animal into a functioning human being.

Reading is access. Access to the world of thought, outside the child's direct sensory experience. Access to experiences beyond his reach, beyond his age level. Access to information. Access to learning. Access to communications. Long before your child has earned his way to any of the other childhood rites of passage (the pocket knife, the watch, the right to carry fire, the right to solitary transport, and so on), he has commenced his journey towards adulthood, even in those first Beatrix Potter stories.

The contra position

It may be said that a great deal of information is now available by audio/video means. This is true up to a point. But the visual and auditory media differ from printed books (whether 'dead tree' or e-ink) in this: the degree of control the watcher or listener has is far less than that he has when reading a book. Listening and watching, by their very nature, lead us into a more passive mindset than we would necessarily adopt when acually reading. This can be a dangerous, as well as a limiting, thing.

For Writers

Be that as it may, it is with writing that I'm concerned here, so let's leave that aside and concentrate on what reading does for our craft. For your convenience, I'm going to divide my observations according to the various stages of a book under construction.

Before You Start Writing

Reading contributes to your growth as a person. The more there is in your mind before you start writing, the more there is to come out of your keyboard when you do start. The prosecution rests.

Research Phase

There is no substitute, if you really want to get across a subject, for reading widely around your topic. Sure, there's no substitute for direct experience, either. But it's not always possible. Suppose you're writing horror, for example? There are things you're really not going to want to try out for yourself, even if they're possible in real life. Or suppose you want to write about life on the front line in a war? You can get a lot from talking to people who've been there, sure, but you can get even more from reading. And reading is a quick, safe way to identify related areas that you'll also want to explore. Take the warzone example - reading a few battle scenes should cue you in to the fact there are particular smells associated with gunfire, for example. Now that's something that with a little thought you can arrange to experience for yourself, along with what being in a cloud of cordite smoke does to your eyes.


Where to begin? There are not enough words in my blog to express the value of extensive reading when you are actually writing. From those thousands of books you've read throughout your life will come the elegant turns of phrase, the instinct for what will work and what won't, the skill at writing dialogue, the minor characters... I'm not talking about copying anything, you understand. I'm talking about the unconscious judgement and skills that have developed in the back of your mind over many years of reading, about the familiarity with the main genres that lets you know what fits within them and what doesn't, and above all the many times you've noticed what worked well, and what didn't.


The reader is at an advantage here, too. From the thousands of books you've read before will come the experience that will help you when you are assessing pace, flow, believability. As a reader, you know what you liked and what you didn't, and if you have ever given these things any thought, you'll probably know why. All of this helps you to assess your own completed work and decide whether you've succeeded at what you set out to do, and if not, why not.

Have I convinced you? Probably not. If you didn't see the value of extensive reading already, you probably didn't even read this far. If you agree with what I've said, then you probably already did, which leaves me wondering why I wrote this. I believed when I started that I had something useful to say, but it's possible that the only people who'd benefit from it are constitutionally unable to do so. Let's hope not.

Don't miss the new book in my Operation Tomcat series. Operation Badger will release on 1 June, on both AMAZON and SMASHWORDS, and can be preordered at either site.

Friday, 5 May 2017

The Value of Community - no writer is an island

We're accustomed to think of writing as a solitary occupation, and so, of course, it is. No one is going to write your words for you, or even tell you what to write. You're up the pointy end every moment.

And yet, membership of a community can have a massive impact on your working life. It is your fellow writers who will share their tips for getting unstuck, their techniques for this and that. It's also your fellow writers who will, hopefully, dish out the tough love when you need it, and call you out on your bullshit. And only your fellow writers understand the particular lonely trials you face. 

But there's more to a community of writers than this, and sometimes, if you're lucky, another writer will start you on a path that works out really well.

This is my own story - a couple of years ago I was writing various short fiction and experimenting with new things. I wrote a short novella called Operation Tomcat; the story was based on a dream I'd had, and I used it to dip a toe into the waters of romantic comedy. I'd always avoided romance like the plague, so this was a big departure for me, and when it was finished, I sent it to my friend Georgie for a beta read. Georgie is a colleague who writes rom-coms, and does it very well; her book,  When Love Feels Like a Pocketful of Snails,  is an absolute delight. 

So far so good. Georgie liked it and was very encouraging, so I felt okay to go ahead and publish. But that wasn't the end of it. I had never envisaged going any further with it; originally, I'd intended it to be a short story, but the story grew into a novella, and that, as far as I was concerned, was that. Georgie believed the book should be the start of a series. And she nagged me and nagged me until I saw her vision. Last year I published the second book in the series, Operation Camilla, and it was very well received, and Operation Badger, the third book, will release on 1 June.

I'm not really a series writer; I've two books in a series which will conclude with the third (the Fiona MacDougall series), but that, as far as I was concerned, was a one-off. But the Operation Tomcat series is great to have. The books are short, as I've stuck with the novella length, so I can comfortably write one in a month, and they're easy and fun to do. This gives me something to fill in the gaps with, between bigger projects, and having an ongoing series is nice for my readership too. It's given me a new dimension in my work, and I truly bless the day I listened to Georgie.

This is, for me, the value of writers' groups. I'm not a fan of spending much time in them; in my experience they can be a dreadful time sink, and moreover, the biggest posters in them tend not to be doing much actual writing, and there's a lot of snark, and a lot of self-promotion, and a LOT of whining. BUT - over against all that, they are a place where one meets some really amazing people. 

So, cherish your writing community, whether it's a Facebook group, a local group, or just a miscellaneous collection of colleagues with whom you're in touch. And contribute. In groups, as in life, one tends to get out about as much as one puts in. Take some time to review that new writer's book. Take some time to critique a passage, or offer a suggestion, or prop up someone's failing courage. The people you help probably won't repay you; life doesn't work like that. But you will see the benefits, nevertheless. And one day, someone like Georgie, with a little well-placed nagging, just might give you something wonderful.

Operation Badger will be available at AMAZON and  SMASHWORDS, and can be pre-ordered from either site.