Designing your own book cover, part 2

After my first book was published, I figured that because I had helped design one good-looking book cover, I could easily do another. As I started the second draft of y1, I returned to Shutterstock thinking that this one was going to be easy. I mean, the action takes place in the South Pacific, with much of the plot occurring on a sailboat at sunset. Oh and it involves a chameleon and a fire-dancer. This was going to be like putting puppies and kittens on a book cover. I couldn’t go wrong.

It is true, the world is full of wonderful orange images of boats and setting suns, and I had no trouble finding several. My first pass is shown to the right, and it was better than my first try with the previous book. But the lone chameleon didn’t look right to me, so I got the bright idea to use two chameleons, so that this book would sort of mirror the two ladies on the cover of x0.  Now, my chameleons were having a staring contest.

It was time to contact the graphics people at Mother Spider, and see if the same magic could be performed on this cover that had happened with my first book, xo. I explained to Jennifer, the owner of Mother Spider, that the novel was about the grown-up adventures of a boy who had once taught himself to shift his appearance while watching his pet chameleon. I had to have the boat, the sunset, the fire-dancing imagery, at least one chameleon and an orange cover.

“We’ll see,” was all she said.

I was surprised and mostly delighted when she sent back this idea. It hadn’t occurred to me to try to get Zane, my shape-shifting main character, on the front of the book, but I liked the idea. Never mind that for most of the novel Zane is in his twenties, and never attempts to look like a chameleon. It captures the spirit of the story.

But, unlike the revision done for x0, I didn’t like everything about it. Maybe I was getting picky, or maybe my own sense of how these six covers were going to come together was growing. I wanted the font to match the first novel, and I didn’t like the way she had tamed my fire-dancing background behind the title of the book. I also didn’t like the weird white strip that ran across Zane’s face and stuck out of his right ear or the funky stuff on the left side of his neck. Like I said, I was getting picky.

Jennifer fixed the font, the fire and the neck, but was at a loss as to how to easily fix the half-morphed Zane. Furthermore, she let me know gently that those three revisions took more time than I was paying for and there were understandable limits on how long she was willing to dink around until I was satisfied. Fair enough.

I was lucky that while Mother Spider was going to put its stamp on my cover, Jennifer was willing to make this a collaborative effort. My real life job (making geological maps of the subsurface) involves a lot of computer graphics, too. I didn’t start with much knowledge of book covers, but I sure knew how to manipulate a digital image.

So I took Jennifer’s half-morphed Zane and blew him up big on my screen. I had a free program called “Paint” on my laptop and I played with the image until I liked it. The differences might seem subtle to someone else, but I enjoyed making the improvements and was happier with the result. Jennifer graciously put my revised Zane-without-the-white-stripe into her cover, and y1 was published as shown above September 2012.

I learned a few things from this. One is that I am going to care more about how my cover looks than anyone else, and as a self-published author I need to be satisfied with the end result. Another was that while I do benefit from professional help with my book covers, I also need the skills and tools to make the sorts of subtle modifications that I cannot afford to pay someone else to do. That means I need to work with someone who doesn’t mind my staying actively involved in the art.

I recently removed the many live links from the electronic versions of y1, as they have become too difficult to maintain. I had to redo the cover, calling it “a novel” instead of “an interactive novel.” While I was at it, I went ahead and fixed Zane’s chameleon eye, which had had always bothered me. My minor improvement is shown above.

The ability to modify a stock image has turned out to be quite useful. I’m now working on the cover for book six, and struggled to find a my new character Violeta. She’s a forty year old telepathic Argentine, and nothing came close. I selected an image of a native American teenager, which I morphed until I liked it. Several of the steps in my process are shown below.

 

 

(For more on this topic see Designing your own book cover, part 1 and Designing your own book cover, part three)

A better word than joy?

I knew from the beginning that my second novel would be centered around the theme of joy. My first novel was all about our connection to others; I wanted this one to celebrate the authenticity of being oneself.

Because I’m the kind of person who gets carried away with an idea, I decided to center the action around the place on the globe that was exactly opposite of Nigeria, where my my first novel took place. Turns out that location is just south of the equator, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This fact might have discouraged someone else, I but I was determined to introduce this symbolism of opposites into my already half-developed plot. So I delved deeper and discovered the island nation of Kiribati, and began to write a novel that encompassed a swath of the sea.

Just as “peace” seemed an inadequate word to describe x0, “joy” barely touched the surface of my overarching theme for y1. What I wanted was a word that meant

the sheer exhilaration that can only be found when a person is true to who they are.

We do need a word for that.

The book was orange in my head. Orange for sunsets over the Pacific and orange for crazy-strong exuberance and for all that glows. This had to be a book about the fire within.

I already knew that later in the series I would write a book that was blue, and it would be about the virtues that tug us in the other direction. I’m still struggling to find a single word that encapsulates the theme of my blue book, but I know that it is about something important, too.

(For more thoughts on words we need, see A better word than loyalty?, A better word than peace?,  A better word than hope? and A better word than courage?)

Why would anyone call a collection of books 46. Ascending?

I spent most of my free time over the past six years writing a collection of six novels. I’d never written a book before and, now that I’m finishing the last one, I’m starting to puzzle through what possessed me to do such a thing.

It seemed like fun? I’d always wanted to write fiction? Why the hell not?

Part of the answer lies in something I wrote today to put at the end of the sixth book to explain to any curious reader who had stuck with me exactly why I called this collection of books 46. Ascending.

Here is how I explained it.

  1. It is an I Ching hexagram.
  2. It is what I came up with when I decided that my six proposed books could be made into an I Ching hexagram. Those with a female protagonist would have two lines and those with a male protagonist a single line and book one would be at the bottom and book six at the top because I was pretty sure that was how you were supposed to do it. I thought it was a cool idea.
  3. The lines make Sheng, the I Ching hexagram number 46, as I discovered when I looked up the above cool idea.
  4. Sheng answered the question that bothered me most. The question was not “will my books make money?” or “will I sell a lot of books?” It wasn’t even “will these be good books?” or “will I enjoy writing them?” Those would all have been fine questions. But, this I Ching hexagram answered my question “should I do this or not?”
  5. Researching Sheng, I read that “it is a time of development and progress, the direction is correct” and “hexagram 46 shows a time where a steady progression will occur where the predicted outcome is positive  and “keep working on your plans and maintain confidence in their success.” Those all sure sounded good to me.
  6. My research on 46 Ascending also put this quote in front of me. It is always better to fail in doing something than to excel in doing nothing. – Chinese Proverb . It is undoubtedly a good quote for anyone contemplating anything.
  7. I learned that Sheng was also referred to as the Symbol of Rising and Advancing, Ascending, Ascension, Rising, Promotion, Advancement, Sprouting from the Earth, and Organic Growth. Who can argue with all that?
  8. Sheng’s details included “The emphasis is on upward motion, from obscurity to influence, with growth that is supported by adaptability and an absence of obstacles.” and “Make a sincere effort to apply resolute effort against the forces of inertia, bending around obstacles that arise, and good fortune will follow.
  9. In other words, everything I read about the I Ching hexagram told me loud and clear “write the damn books.” So I did.
  10. Was the universe talking to me? Was I talking to myself? Am I lucky I didn’t put the lines in the reverse order? Those are all great questions. But the one I started to consider was how well did the hexagram fit in with the books themselves.
  11. If you asked me what this collection of books was about, from the beginning I would have told you it was about how all humans have so much more potential than they realize. We can improve, we can rise, we can ascend. Climb the mountain. Move towards the light to the south. You know. Grow.
  12. So this collection of books is named after an I Ching hexagram that not only got me off my butt and writing, but just happened to perfectly describe what it was I was trying to say. Go figure. At the least, it seemed reasonable to name the collection of books after it.

What I don’t address at the end of my novel is the question “did writing the books make me happy?” It’s an important question, but it’s important to me, and not really to my readers. That makes it a more appropriate topic for my blog.

Well …

I can tell you that I wrote these books filled with a sense of energy and purpose unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life. Many days, writing wasn’t just what I wanted to do, it was all I wanted to do. It was an addiction, an obsession, and a nepenthe against all the world’s ills. I let it consume me, and I enjoyed the ride.

I emerge at the other end, tireder, older, fifteen pounds heavier and with six years of my life mysteriously gone. But, I was lucky enough to have five people in this world who loved me throughout this process and I was lucky enough to have a way to make a living while I wrote that kept serious worries away. Neither is to be taken lightly and for both I count my blessings.

Everybody always tells you to pursue your passion in life. I don’t think that “everybody” has much of an idea of all that really entails. It changes you in ways you do and don’t like. It’s not always fun. It doesn’t always turn out well, certainly not in the Hollywood kind of way.

But once you’ve done it, you can’t imagine not having done it, if that makes any sense. Like not doing it wasn’t even an option, or at least it shouldn’t have been.

Is that happiness? I’m not sure, but I think it might be something even better.

 

Smiling my way across Kenya

I have the opposite of a resting bitch face. My default expression, through no effort of my own, is a smile. When stressed, I often smile more without knowing it. There are plenty of times this is a problem, like every incident of corporate layoffs in which I was ever involved. Trust me, there is no role during such an event in which a smile is appropriate.
It has been an advantage at times, though, yielding me more tips as a waitress, better treatment at airline counters, and dozens of compliments on my good attitude even when my attitude sucked. But no where does this quirk affect me more than when I travel. The further from home I go, the more I smile. Sometimes the expression is genuine, because I love being on the road. Sometimes, I don’t even know I am doing it.
I’ve just returned from one of my furthest journeys ever, a trip to Kenya which got me thinking. What do people do here in the US when you smile at them?
1. They smile back
2. They say hi and maybe try to talk to you.
3. They try to sell you some thing or some idea. Depending on circumstances, that might include the idea of hooking up with them.
4. They take it as an invitation to do harm, attempting to scam or rob you.
I think we can all agree that the first is rather nice. The Kenyans smile back, too, and I carried home the images of hundreds of their smiles. It seemed to me that (with some exceptions) their culture encourages smiling, and it was a delight to have women and men, young and old exchange this simple greeting with me.
I’m less comfortable with having strangers talk to me, but luckily one of my travel companions was not. We made a great team. I did the smiling and then she engaged in the ensuing conversions, much to her own delight.
Sales is another matter. My travel group preferred to buy our trinkets in little shops with established prices. I’ve never understood the charm of haggling, and I respond poorly to pushy sales techniques. I found myself forcing a determined pucker when our van slowed to a stop in traffic and the inevitable crowd selling bracelets and fruit approached us.
Then I thought about similar places in the US. Selling anything to stopped cars is illegal back home, but instead we find beggars with signs detailing their woes and girls’ softball teams asking for donations to attend tournaments. Wasn’t this enterprising foot-based sales force far more admirable? I think so.
In fact, I don’t remember seeing a single beggar in all of Kenya. Or a single homeless person. Granted, there were huge swaths of Nairobi which I never entered, but in a country with an unemployment rate of nearly 40%, the major highways are lined with people trying to make a living, not folks asking for a handout. It seems to me that the people of Kenya embody the virtue of self-sufficiency to an admirable extent. You would think that the American Tea Party would love this place, and ought to be praising the people of Kenya as an example to lazy Americans. Why do I get the distinct feeling that few of them have ever traveled this far, or would be impressed if they did?
For all that hundreds of people tried to sell me things, not one tried to sell me their ideas. The Kenyans I met were proud of their indirect association with Barack Obama, but otherwise left their politics and mine out of the conversation, along with religion and philosophy. There was a feeling of acceptance, of you’re-entitled-to-be-you and I’m-entitled-to-be-me that also reminded me of what Americans aspire to, and often fall short of these days.
The most unfortunate result of a resting smile face is that one can inadvertently invite scams and thieves. It was worth noting that in spite of all the warnings I received before I left, I and my party encountered no theft, no unwanted attention, and no attempt to cheat us. While I’m not naive enough to think it doesn’t happen here, a combination of caution and planning seemed sufficient to avoid problems under normal circumstances and most of the Kenyans with whom I interacted made me feel as safe or safer than I feel at home.
This is not to say that poverty is not obvious, even from the road. The average monthly wage in Kenya is under a hundred US dollars, and even though the cost of living is much lower, this little bit doesn’t go far enough. I’m sure there was hunger and disease, hidden from my view.
What was in my view, however, was people who had very little but were not, in general, miserable. There is a difference between poverty and misery, and that is something I think we tend to forget in the US.
What did I see in Kenya? I saw smiles and I saw hard work and I saw people willing to help each other and even a stranger. I saw curiosity and I saw tolerance and I saw people who appeared to be enjoying their lives.
When I arrived in Nairobi, after 36 hours of travel, my face was in its resting smile mode, with me exhausted and grumpy inside. When I left eight days later, the grin on my face was genuine, warmed by the charm of so many people who had smiled back at me.

I believe in appreciating those who protect us. All of them

“Please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” the commander in chief tweeted because …

  1. Military policy now is announced through twitter??
  2. The between 1,500 and 15,000 transgender people currently serving in a wide variety of capacities (out of 1.3 million on active-duty) are somehow eroding “military readiness and unit cohesion” at least according to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who really ought to know??
  3. our current president just couldn’t resist finding yet another way to surprise and dismay his staff with another poorly thought out idea to appease his far right base while disrupting the lives of those he knows little about??

I guess it must have been all of the above.

Which takes me back to my blogging theme for this month. It’s not about what people deserve, it’s about what you believe.

I believe, along with Arizona Republican and Vietnam war hero John McCain, that “Any American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving.”

I believe that policy changes that deeply impact the lives of of anyone should be well thought out, based on valid reasoning, and carefully and compassionately communicated.

What our current president deserves is to be treated the way he treats others, which would involve having his safety and well-being crassly used by another as political chum.

However, I believe in adhering to my own morals, and treating people well, even if they do not deserve it. So, I hope we find a way to remove this man from office soon, and put him out to pasture where he can live out his days playing golf, eating cake and harming no one.

It’s not what he deserves, but it’s what I believe.

(For more Wonder Woman inspired thoughts, see Top Requirement for a Superhero, Believe, It’s About What You Believe, and Believe in Tomorrow.)

And that’s the way it was, June 28, 1888

One of my best antidotes for information overload is history. There is something calming about returning to a world devoid of smart phones, cable news and (yes) blogging. Today, I was delighted to learn that exactly 129 years ago Robert Louis Stevenson left San Francisco for the South Seas.

Ah, islands in the Pacific. I am fascinated by that swath of the globe, although I’ve only managed to touch it twice. And Stevenson’s Treasure Island was certainly in the back of my mind when I wrote y1. I suspect that his more famous Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has helped inspire every writer after him who tried to craft a meaningful villain.

But there is more to his story. He was a Scotsman who studied civil engineering and law, and then upset his parents by opting to become a fiction writer instead. (They weren’t too happy when he became an atheist, either. History is silent as to which bothered them the most.)

Then he went and fell in love with an American divorcee, who he married. Although he had lifelong health issues, he traveled widely. He wrote about the importance of finding joy in ones life, even though he found himself at death’s door several times during his journeys.

After 1888, he spent most of his time in the South Pacific, settling with his family in Samoa. He died there and was buried overlooking the sea.

I’ve included a couple of my favorite quotes of his here. He was more of an inspiration than I realized.

(For more segments about June days from long ago, see That’s the Way It Was June 10, 1947, June 15, 1984, June 18, 1972, and June 30, 1940.)

 

 

Caring About Far Away Places

My stories make it obvious that I love places that require a difficult journey to visit. Greenland. Bhutan. Antarctica. Tierra del Fuego. A small village in Nigeria. A lake in the Mountains of Guatemala. If it’s hard to get to from where I am, I love to write about it.

No place is more remote to a Texan that the island nation of Kiribati. This south pacific country of 100,000 people is made up of 33 low-lying coral atolls with a total land area of about 300 square miles. More spectacularly, it is the only nation on earth to set inside of all four hemispheres, and it covers a million square miles on the globe.

The map is from a wonderful website about Kiribati, which I referred to frequently when I was writing y1. Visit JANE’S KIRIBATI HOME PAGE to enjoy this bit of Micronesia.

Someday I hope to visit this place that I spent so much time learning about but I understand that I better not take too long. As the melting icecaps raise global sea level, the low lying atolls of Kiribati are becoming submerged. Leaders of this country have been planning a national exodus for years, seeking asylum for their descendants once the nation is completely under water.

In the meantime, Kiribati and it’s nearby neighbors are doing their best to raise awareness of the drastic effects climate change is having on this part of the world. The well known 2015 Paris Climate Agreement grew out of years of work, shepherded along at yearly United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change. The yearly gathering for 2017 will be hosted by Kiribati’s Melanesian neighbor, Fiji.

In spite of my own country’s lack of recent leadership regarding climate change, I will be cheering on the representatives of Polynesian, Micronesia and Melanesia as they take the world the stage.

As I watch with dismay as the United States turns more towards nationalist politics, I’ve been trying to discern where my own fascination with all the rest of the world began. I have this theory that music is a powerful tool for introducing ideas, and I remembered hearing a particular song as a child. I didn’t think I could find it, but luckily the song title is part of the lyrics and, like almost everything else, there it is on YouTube. Very old fashioned, although the beautiful voice of Sam Cooke brings a magic that transcends the decades.

Imagine yourself on an island in the South Pacific and enjoy!

(For more thoughts on Far Away Places see Those Far Away Places Could Be Next Door, Leaving a Light Footprint in a Far Away PlaceAs Far Away Places Edge Closer and The Courage to Embrace Those Far Away Places.)