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.

 

Am I sure I’m Sherrie?

“Do you want to know what I’m thinking?”

“Of course I do.”

“Why?”

It was a trick questions, and I knew it, because we were in the middle of an argument. I guessed he was about to make the point that no, I really didn’t want to know because if I did then I wouldn’t be doing blah-de-blah.

But I was trying to diffuse the situation, for once. I’m not known as the diffuser in this relationship, but every once in awhile I have a good day. So I said ….

“I do want to know, because we are all always changing. If you don’t tell me what you’re thinking, I’ll be loving an outdated version of you, someone who used to exist. I want to love the you who is here now and I can’t do that if you won’t tell me what you’re thinking.”

Oh. We looked at each other and we both realized that, for no apparent reason, I had just spoken a fine truth. I had no idea where it came from. It did kind of diffuse the discussion, though, and we both went on about our day feeling less angry.

Later, as I sat down to work on the novel I am so, so close to finishing, I read the scene I wrote last night before dinner. It was about Zane, the shape-shifting protagonist of y1, the novel that is the basis for this blog. Zane is in my nearly finished book as well, and in this most recent scene he has been forced to assume the appearance of and substitute himself for an older businessman named Warren. Here’s the scene.

Zane woke up Friday morning and he knew that it was show time. The real Warren would be safe somewhere at a location unknown to Zane. Jerry would be in nearby room listening to Zane’s every conversation, making sure Zane behaved…

Warren had a series of appointments that day, starting with the ones that were likely to be quick and easy. First up were the non-telepathic executives who oversaw Accounting, HR, and Legal. Each needed a few minutes of the big boss’s time to approve this and discuss that and be reassured that Warren’s unprecedented absence for the past two weeks had been necessary and that the issues had been resolved. His administrative aide needed time with him as well, and Zane guessed that she would be the toughest one to fool.

But really, what was she going to say. “Are you sure you’re Warren?”

He already knew how he would answer.

“Yes. Are you sure you’re Denise?”

But the conversation would probably never happen. People saw what they expected to see.

I’ve gotten a lot of good things from my obsession with writing novels. I’ve learned facts, met people, experienced a lot of personal satisfaction. But to the best of my knowledge, this is first time part of plot has worked to supply me with the perfect answer to a question.

Am I sure I’m Sherrie? If it’s the April 14, 2017 release you’re asking about, then yes, I’m sure.

(For more short excerpts from my upcoming novel, also see Worry about those you love and write about what you know, Point of View, The Amazing Things I Get to Do, and Cease worrying when you can and write about what you know.)

It’s an angry world in some places.

I do have fantasies of running away. I want to leave behind my chores, my email, and my sense of obligation to be nice. And more than anything right now, I want to get away from American politics.

I’m traveling abroad and the little news that I’ve gotten this week confirms my worst fears about my country’s current regime change. Identities of incoming cabinet members make it clear that the angry non-professional whites are not going to get a better deal any time soon, and that possibility was the only silver lining to this mess that I saw. No, they will only get poorer as the very rich use their new cabinet positions to find ways to siphon ever more money away from the working class, making them angrier and more disagreeable. Not something to look forward to.

img_3287At the moment, I recognize that I have anger issues of my own. I cannot seem to stop seething at those who made the stupid decision to vote for this man, no matter what their reasoning. I don’t use the word stupid lightly. If I hear one more person make the uninformed claim that “she was just as bad” I fear I may loose my remaining respect for my fellow citizens. Please stop chanting “lock her up” and look what she actually did and did not do, folks. Read the results of unbiased fact checkers about who lied most of the time and who didn’t. Listen carefully to the things your candidate said. And then show some remorse for what you’ve brought on this great nation.

Okay, I admit it, I’m not in a forgiving, let’s all come together kind of mood and it looks like I’m not going to get there for awhile. It is probably a good thing that I got to run away for a week, and that it was all the way to Morocco.

This is an ancient land, but one in transition as well. The internet is everywhere, with satellite dishes decorating the top of most of the roofs inside the Medina, the oldest, walled parts of the city. Leaders have worked hard here to eliminate terrorists from their midst, knowing well that it is the peace loving citizenry of a country that suffer the most from its own radicalism.

img_3318Two of my fellow travelers are gay men, and they are aware that homosexual acts are illegal in this country. As in many other places, no one they encounter goes out of their way to learn more about their relationship. In the city, they share a room and a bed, and the housekeeper drapes it with roses just as, I assume, she does for every other couple.

After a few days we leave the noisy mesmerizing city of Marrakesh for the countryside. Morocco is largely rural, with the kind of conservative beliefs that that remind me of my own roots in Western Kansas. Yes, I know, we were Catholic and they are Muslim, but below that surface is the same innate code that people should dress modestly, talk nicely, and behave well. My travel companions are given a room with twin beds, of course. No one would think they wanted otherwise.

img_3399Then we are on to the desolate Atlantic coast in the southern part of the country, where beer is sold and limbs are shown as people from a whole mix of ethnic origins and beliefs come together to enjoy the sea and the waves. Lodging and food are even less expensive and there is a feel somewhere between hippie and surfer. Our hostel beds are several to a room, and no one cares at all who sleeps where, with who or why.

The writer in me is wide awake, her head full of stories begging to be told. Traveling without my computer for the first time in years has meant writing first drafts by hand, something I have not done for decades. At first it felt awkward as I scratched out words and used circles and arrows to move blocks of text round, but by now it has become fun as I rediscover the joy of making a fancy arrow or giving an extra flourish a the base of a “y”. Writing is once again a visual experience as well as an intellectual one, encouraged by the sight of the beautiful Arabic alphabet that surrounds me here.

Part of me wants to stay on this beach forever, or at least for a few more months. I’ve found Moroccans to be friendly on the whole, and as a woman who made part of this trip alone I’ve had no more problems than I would have expected anywhere. And oh the stories I could write here. But I don’t belong in this place. I have a home, one where I and a whole lot of other people are very angry.

It’s time to board my plane. I linger as everyone else climbs up the steps into the aircraft, thinking how I’m glad that Morocco does not have so many angry people. I appreciate that no one has tried to make trouble for me or my fellow travelers. I wish this country ongoing peace as it makes its way along in a modern world. I vow to take some of that peace with me, as I prepare to head home to deal with all the angry people in my own nation, including myself.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see Happy International Day of Peace Lahcen and NajetI See Ghosts, My Way, and That’s Why you Make the Trip on my other blogs.)

Four Reasons I Love It When “Love Wins”

Reason number one: Love makes us happy, and happiness is wonderful.

Several times now I’ve posted about a report on which countries have the happiest people. I’m intrigued that six attributes account for most of this variation, and I summed them up as health, wealth, freedom, love, fairness and kindness. I’ve already written about the first three and today I’m thinking about love.

life lessons6Now, the people doing this survey were not asking questions about romantic love, wonderful as is it. They used a broader definition, by asking something more like “do you have people in your life that you care about and can depend on?” This careful wording included family members and close friends along with intimate partners, and as far as I’m concerned it covered every type of love inclined to bring one happiness. (Unrequited love for someone who does not know you exist doesn’t exactly bring a lot of smiles. A spirited discussion could be had as to whether it is love at all, but that is outside the scope of this post.) Suffice to say, if you have people, or a person, you care about and who care enough about you back that you feel you can count on them, then you have love. Lucky you.

love wins2. “Love Wins” has become associated with the LGBTQ community’s struggles for marriage equality and other rights. I’m a heterosexual woman with a 34-year traditional marriage, and an avid supporter of equality in every sense for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Zane, the main character in y1, is gay, and I did my best to present his love affair with Afi as a beautiful thing to be cheered on by anyone with a heart. In the real world, friends, relatives and co-workers of mine are LGBTQ, and every time “Love Wins” it makes me smile too. Love is funny that way. It likes to see more love.

SPLC3. Love wins every time that hate does not. I’m also an avid supported of the fine work that is done by the SPCL (Southern Poverty Law Center) even though donating to them means that I get a lot of letters from them asking me for more money. It’s okay. I glance through them all and give when I can. Recently I got one such letter that moved me more than usual. It discussed the nine people killed a year ago in the white supremacist attack at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, and noted that “Hate won’t win” were the brave words Alana Simmons spoke to her grandfather’s killer in Charleston.

Yes,“Hate won’t win” are brave words coming from someone who has been grievously wronged, and the words brought a tear to my eye. I know that love wins every time that hate does not.

cosmic conduit 24. The last reason has to do with music. I’m fixing up the music pages on each of my blogs, and today I was expanding my post about David Guetta and Estelle’s One Love.  As the lyrics to One Love say …. “if we stand together than we’ll be okay.” You know, more love wins kind of stuff… and it’s what got me started on this post.

Think of how many great songs there are about love. Luckily, far more than those about fear, hate and hopelessness, although I will concede that there are a few great songs about those emotions too. Yet in the grand overview of musical topics, love wins and I’m glad.

I’d forgotten about exactly how I’d referred to the song in the book, and when I found the excerpt it made me smile.

Joy felt like she was living two lives at once. In one life, she taught Samoan third graders by day, dressed demurely in lightweight long-sleeved tops and loose colorful skirts to her ankles, and pretended to be Afi’s wife by night. Given the vast number of options open to humanity in 2010, it wasn’t a bad life. She wasn’t hungry, she wasn’t hurting, she had a friend nearby, and she was doing useful work. Life came a lot worse.

In her other life, she sailed the ocean, barefoot in a tank top and gym trunks. Her hair blew free while her body moved softly with the thunk of the boat hitting the waves and with the rhythm of her latest favorite song. For the past few weeks David Guetta and Estelle’s One Love had been about every third selection on her MP3 player, and when she wasn’t listening to it she was generally singing the song in her head while she imagined Toby’s hand on her thigh as he sat at the helm of Miss Demeanor. She would see his hint of a smile as his fingers started to rise higher up her leg and then each time he would turn to her, with his soft brown eyes asking her a question. As the song picked up tempo she felt herself smiling her answer back to him and then he always set the sails and they went below deck where the song was playing loudly and life was very, very good.

Of course, that other life existed only in her mind. But anyone who had ever been in love would know that it was the more important of her two lives.

Ah, yes, that romantic love stuff does bring us joy, even when it is just in our imagination.

I confess to having a weakness for amateur videos that make me feel like I am standing right  at a concert and this simple and seldom viewed video of One Love being performed at Electric Zoo in 2011 took me in with its tag line of “right place right time last song.” I’ve had that feeling and it’s a fine one. Go ahead and sing along with the audience, and enjoy letting love win in one more way.

 

(For more posts on the subject of what makes us happy see If you want to be happy move to a cold country?, Happiness fascinates me, None of us are normal if we’re lucky, Some Kind of Kindness, The fairest of them all?, and When is it time for “More”?)

Of awkwardness, birds and monsters

I have a secret motto for my writing. If I put it in my blog it isn’t going to be secret anymore, so suffice to say it has to do with leaving my fears behind as I pen my prose. I believe that if you comfort zoneconstrain yourself to write only what others expect, or what you think others want to see from you, or what you think is acceptable, then you will never write anything great.

So I was happy to see this on twitter the other day, tweeted by @HeyJamie, who is really Jamie Jo Hoang , author of “Blue Sun, Yellow Sky.” I’m not a big liker and re-tweeter, but this got them both.

Which brings me to the song “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters” by MGMT. Not the song itself, which I’ve loved ever since the first time I heard it because it somehow makes me think of magic, but rather my mention of the song in my novel y1 and the scene it was used in.

y1 is the story of a young man who can reshape his body at will. This is all well and good for his solving crimes but if you start to think about it a little more, sooner or later you end up doing this.

Zane had seldom altered his shape to appear female, but except for his height there was no particular barrier to doing so. He could approximate breasts and wider hips. A wig would work wonders. He could add years, and a more ambiguous ethnicity. He would practice making himself as short as possible. The stooping of age would help. Meanwhile, he needed to learn more about a part of Penthes that he had, up till now, ignored, like most people. That was the beauty of the janitorial group. They just did not get a lot of attention.

In his office, Zane began to gather supplies. A janitor’s jumpsuit just a bit too small for Zane, women’s sneakers, and an unattractive salt and pepper woman’s wig were locked in this bottom left drawer along with an old iPod holding the brightest, shiniest pieces of electronic dance music and remixes that Zane had been able to find.

This last item was so much more than his favorite songs. Over the past months he had discovered how he could use music as a tool to push his body to new limits, with the music he loved helping him concentrate as he became ever more adept at controlling his appearance at will. He had finally, reluctantly, let himself begin to refer to his gift in his own mind as “shape shifting” and he now thought of this particular music as his cache of shape shifting songs.

He plugged the iPod into his computer and let himself enjoy the wonderful Holy Ghost remix of MGMT’s “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters.” Zane savored the ocean imagery and the upbeat tempo of the song for a moment, then as he began to coax his body into another form, Zane tried to imagine how wonder itself might be shaped.

IMG_1625I don’t write erotica, so I didn’t end up taking this nearly as far as it could have gone, and yet, well, my hero’s inevitable transformation from male body to female body made me squirm a little at the fuzzy line between the genders. It was probably a good squirm for me to have, given that I live in a world that increasingly acknowledges how complicated human sexuality is and encourages every human to discover and be in the shape that is right for them.  I welcome this enlightened acceptance, but philosophical agreement doesn’t always convey complete ease with something, at least not right away.

So, as so often happens, my writing took me out of my comfort zone and I was the one who gained the most from it. My hero Zane changed his gender a few times before the book was over. I don’t know what my various readers thought of it, but by the last edit of y1, I was better off.

Back to twitter. One of my other favorite tweets came via writer Jose Iriarte, who described himself in third person as “a Cuban-American writer and high school math teacher …  [who] writes because he can’t afford therapy.”

Exactly.  Except for the Cuban-American and math teacher part, of course. Otherwise, that’s it exactly.

While pondering your own monsters and other discomfort zones, you can listen to and enjoy Zane’s favorite Holy Ghost Remix of “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters.”