Cover Story (the art of book covers from an author without much of a clue)

Cover Story

(the art of book covers from an author without much of a clue)

A recent review of Little Gidding Girl mentioned the image on the cover, querying why the figure is fairly slender when the statue mentioned in the book is of a goddess figurine with generous curves. I confess that when I was trying to find a concept for the cover art of this book I was all at sea. I don’t understand cover design, or why it’s quite so important, because for me, the vast majority of the covers I see are a big turn off. They make me feel manipulated, the way almost all advertisements do. That might well be just me, though. I am told that because most people are highly visual, the cover art is vital to grabbing the attention of potential readers and getting them to take notice, read the blurb and buy. Many authors redo covers, finding a new theme or concept to tie together books in a series or to standardise a brand. I have no idea whether it works, or whether it would work for mine or not, and don’t have enough energy to give thought to it. Finding the right ideas for a cover has been the bane of my existence.

For Little Gidding Girl, I combined two ideas from the story and from my vague blatherings and a photo of my own, Annette composed the art. The background shows a rustic door or gate in a wall, behind which you can see what may be roses or may be apples and may be both; the door we never opened into a rose garden is drawn from the poetry that runs through the book, but apple trees fill the garden of the main character Verity. The goddess figurine unites two strands within the story: Verity’s grandfather had been an archaeologist of some note, and the figurine was acquired by Nick’s aunt, who was a buyer of antiques and antiquities. Yet finding the correct image wasn’t easy. There are pitfalls and prat-falls abounding when it comes to acquiring and using photographs of actual antiquities and art. The image is actually from a pendant I bought last year, rummaged from a bargain bucket in a shop in Glastonbury and digitally altered somewhat (the thing itself is a bit over an inch long). I would have preferred a more fecund set of curves, but since fat is OUT in terms of the way our culture seems to lean, I settled for this relatively slender and youthful form. Together the image is striking and intriguing and also, unlike anything else I’ve seen.

When it comes down to it, I find myself baffled by the fashions in book covers in the time I have been self-publishing. Not just independent books but traditionally published ones all seem to follow trends until you can almost always guess the nature of a book by its cover; in the wake of (cough) Fifty Shades (cough) every volume of erotic fiction sported certain instantly recognisable clues to its contents. Often highly symbolic in theme (fruit, masks, whips, dark colours etc) the covers gave a sense of what lay within in a codified manner. I sometimes toy with the idea of producing a cover with that type of symbolic images for, let’s say, The Bet, and see what happens. Probably a swathe of disappointed readers for though that novel contains a lot of sex, pretty much all of it is off-camera.

Each genre has a well-established set of codes for cover art, because it’s a way of subliminally attracting readers in the same way the Also Bought suggestions online also do. Books that straddle genres (like mine) or defy classification (again, like mine) can’t easily take advantage of this visual shorthand. I’ve thought occasionally about new covers for some books. The Bet is my own favourite book (yeah, I am that vain) but I don’t think its cover is right. The current cover suggests a gothic horror and while in a strange way it does trespass into that territory, it doesn’t fit at all. The folks who have read it have generally raved about it, but when it comes to finding it a well-fitting niche, there doesn’t seem to be one and I am reluctant to proceed any further with the sequel (written but needing a good proofread and a cover) until I have cracked that conundrum. What I’d like is to find the right themes for the covers of both The Bet and the first sequel (currently entitled One Immortal Diamond) and when OID is ready to roll, relaunch The Bet with a new cover that prefigures the cover for OID.

The other problem with going back and redoing covers is that it takes away energy from writing and releasing new books. I’m working on very restricted energy anyway, so the chances are very small of coming up with new covers for all that need them. I think I’d rather use what creative forces I can muster to actually get on with writing and while my health remains impaired, I apologise for my lack of alacrity in getting new books out there. People say the best way to sell more books is to write more but I am far from sure that’s true. But having managed to write (longhand) some short stories recently, and observed that I felt mentally and spiritually a LOT better for doing so, I am starting to think that if writing is my way through the inner horrors, then I must just write and stop worrying whether the current covers of my books are “good enough”.

“There’s gold in them there hills…oh, no, now wait a minute…!”

There’s gold in them there hills…oh, no, now wait a minute…!”

A couple of years ago now we worked our way through a dvd box set of the hit series Deadwood. Set in the town of Deadwood (a real place) and following the fortunes of various people (many of whom have the names if not the actual characters of real, historical and sometimes famous people), during the Gold Rush period.

At the time, it rang a lot of bells about the way the self-publishing world was going and since then, I’ve thought about it a lot.

I first began publishing my own books in 2011 (though Strangers and Pilgrims was first published by someone else for me, it was a false start about eighteen months before I finally took it back and began again). It was a time somewhat akin to the early years of the Gold Rush. A new, exciting and potentially extremely lucrative adventure awaited those who were willing to just get their work out there, battling the new tech and avenues the way the prospectors battled weather and mountains and so on.

But gold is buried deep, is hard to find and seams run out unexpectedly and anyone who made plans based on a first lucrative lucky strike were fools if they thought the gold would just keep on coming. I’ve seen it said that the entire amount of gold in the world would fill an Olympic sized swimming pool and no more than that. Gold is finite but hope is eternal. The cannier inhabitants of Deadwood became the suppliers instead of prospectors. They opened saloon bars, shops and brothels; they sold food and drink, shovels and pans, flesh and promises and treasure maps to the folks who flocked there believing they’d make their fortune.

You really can’t blame them. They’d been lured there themselves by the dangling carrot of unlimited wealth if you just dug long enough in the right places, and when they’d got enough to start a business of some sort, the wise ones quit prospecting. As long as people continued to flock or even trickle there, hope in their hearts and enough dollars to buy equipment and whisky, the legends would keep being retold. It only took the occasional lucky strike to keep hope fresh and new legends to be forged.

It’s the same with self publishing and probably publishing generally. We all hear tales of people whose work suddenly went viral and they sold millions; we all probably secretly still believe it could be us, if we just stay out there. But few of us are making any money any more. There’s a whole other debate about whether writing for money is a fool’s game anyway, and another about whether ethically and faith-motivated folks are allowed to ever admit that some of their motivation for writing is in the hopes of making a living or even a decent paying hobby or second job. I’m not going there today.

The people who have a chance of making a living are those who now run businesses selling to the writers. Whether it’s editing services, formatting, cover design or one of a plethora of services deemed needful for authors, aspiring or otherwise, there’s a LOT of canny people out there, offering it. Organisations like Book Bub offer dreams of success through their advertising services (which cost, and dearly and they’re choosy who they will take on for a campaign) bringing your book in front of an audience that matches the demographic your book is aimed at.

For me, I’ve realised that I’m a gold panner. I’m someone who goes out weekends and evenings, with makeshift equipment and warmly-padded waders, and stands bent over a fast-flowing mountain stream, sifting gravel and occasionally finding grains of gold. Once in a while, a nugget comes my way. Sometimes, the dynamite someone has used higher up the mountain has loosened more rocks that bear gold, and I find that the tiny specks come to me more often. But it’s the process of being out there, looking at the fish and the sparkling water and the occasional gleams of precious metal, and knowing that while I could have boxed smarter and found another way to garner my gold, at least I am still doing what I set out to do, and still have a tiny bit of hope in my heart.

Wheat from the Chaff – is it possible to differentiate an author from their books?

Wheat from the Chaff – is it possible to differentiate an author from their books?

Some years ago, I read a book by a big name famous author and was fairly unimpressed by it. I’d read pretty much everything else by this author and enjoyed most of it but this one fell short of even the least enjoyable of their books. I mentioned this sense of meh (there’s no other word for it) on Twitter. Now, bear in mind I don’t follow this author, nor the author follow me, but within an hour or two, they tweeted back rather aggressively. This suggests that said author has various alerts set up for mentions of their name and their books and may well do searches randomly on Twitter to see what’s being said. You can tell by my use of a neutral pronoun that I am keeping the identity of this author very quiet because I really don’t want to have them come after me again. Subsequent observations have shown that I am not alone in being targeted by this author on social media, and that it’s surprisingly common behaviour, even among the big names.

I get it: it’s never nice to get unpleasant, negative reviews. But I didn’t review the book; a quick scan on Amazon showed I was far from alone in my opinion of that book. It’s a rare occasion when a book by a hugely popular and almost iconic author has almost as many 1 star reviews as 5 star ones. To go searching for the people who didn’t like your book seems to reveal a vast insecurity that is shocking considering the numbers who did like it.

This post isn’t intended to be solely about this sort of behaviour but a wider issue instead. How much can you separate an author’s character and behaviour from their books? Having recently published Little Gidding Girl, which is partly inspired by T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, I am acutely aware of Eliot’s feet of clay. His treatment of his wife (who shares my name, oddly enough) is not edifying (in brief, when her mental illness became too much for him, and he declared their marriage over, her brother apparently had her shut away in an asylum and Eliot never saw her again https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vivienne_Haigh-Wood_Eliot ). There are many criticisms that can be made of Eliot, for certain, but I still revere his poetry. Yet the dissonance makes me uncomfortable at times.

It’s the same with a lot of authors and poets whose work I have been enthralled by; some have held opinions and beliefs that I shudder at, yet which I can ignore or not even notice within their works. It’s quite rare that an author is a completely nice guy or gal; I wonder also if the tension of personality flaws, weird beliefs and a history of trauma and difficulties may be a large part of what drives creative endeavours? Of Eliot, it was said that Vivienne ruined him as a man but made him as a poet.

In these days of instant access to authors via social media and the ‘net generally, it’s pretty hard to hide from your readers. Authors are required to have a public presence and a public persona; it’s part of the deal, especially with traditional publishing contracts. You are encouraged to find your USP (Unique Selling Point, for those, like me, who don’t speak Marketese) of things that will draw an audience to you, whether that’s an interest in shoes, cupcakes, animal welfare or whatever. Potential authors who cringe at the concept of putting yourself out there will usually remain just that: potential authors. Refusal to accept this side of things is almost always the end of your career before it even starts. It’s intrusive to the author and it can create intolerable pressures and tensions. You cannot be a completely private person and an author, unless you have created a completely “other” identity that is used for your author profile. This is far harder than you would imagine; if you interact with fans, your real nature will eventually slip out because lies are harder to maintain than truths.

My own author persona has been cobbled together from useful scraps, rather like the way a caddis-fly constructs a shell of bits and bobs to protect itself from being eaten. I’m definitely a soft-shelled sort of person, easily hurt, but the bits and bobs are true reflections of the nature within the armour. When I first began to get my books out there, I was naïve but thankfully I was also intellectually aware that one should not take things personally. A 1 star review is, after all, solely the opinion of one person, and cannot outweigh the dozens and dozens of 4 and 5 star reviews. I’ve cried at negative reviews. I’ve raged, but I’ve (mostly) done it privately and unlike many authors, I’ve never gone after the reviewer. They, like anyone, are entitled to their reaction to a book, but I do sometimes wonder if they realise that authors do read reviews (even though some would suggest we ought not, even the good ones) and have feelings and can be gravely wounded by the personal attacks that some reviews employ.

Some authors refer to their works as their book babies, and the analogy is quite an accurate one. They are the products of our hearts, minds and imaginations and our aspirations, as well as of long hours of hard labour. But once those book babies are out in the world, they can and almost always do take on a life of their own, and while we may own the copyright, in subtle ways we no long own the soul of that book. People who read find their own understanding of the story, of the characters. We as authors cannot control that or dictate what readers can and can’t do or feel. Some books take on a life that is distinct from that of the creator, so distinct that on reading them you can’t help wonder how someone like that could create something like this. It cuts both ways: unpleasant or even evil people writing inspiring, powerful, poetic and life changing books, and deeply good, kind, decent and caring people writing books that are disturbing, frightening and altogether horrible books.

One can never entirely predict how one’s off-spring, whether flesh or mere words, will turn out. This makes the process of creation so much more chancy and ultimately more exciting, because you cannot tell how something will develop, both in the writing and in the reading.

Going live…

Going live…

Little Gidding Girl is in the process of publishing. The UK link for the ebook has gone live here. The paperback link is here (they will be joined up at some point)

The Launch party on FB is here.

I shall be sharing more blog posts over the coming weeks about the themes and so on of the book (and some guest posts too) but this is just the heads up to the readers of this blog who are interested.

I’ll add links as the day goes on.

US version here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07315QQ5N

German version here: https://www.amazon.de/dp/B07315QQ5N

Canada here: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B07315QQ5N

Australian here: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B07315QQ5N

India: https://www.amazon.in/dp/B07315QQ5N

France: https://www.amazon.fr/dp/B07315QQ5N

Netherlands: https://www.amazon.nl/dp/B07315QQ5N

Other stores (Japan, Spain, Mexico) please use the links above and alter the dot whatever in the URL to whatever suffix is needed. So far I haven’t sold anything in those countries’s stores so do surprise me if you use them!

Little Gidding Girl launching at the Summer Solstice

Little Gidding Girl launching at the Summer Solstice

After much work and heart-searching, I decided that I’d choose a date for the launch of Little Gidding Girl, and since the story starts at the Autumn Equinox, the launch is going to be midsummer, around the Summer Solstice. I’ll be blogging more about the significance of the equinoxes and solstices but there’s good but hidden reasons why these dates are important.

The paperback is out already, giving those who prefer paper to digital a chance to get a copy in advance of the launch of the ebook, because a paperback has to find its way via whatever postal system is in place and can take days or even weeks to arrive.

I’ll be sharing various blog posts over the coming weeks, but this is the blurb:

“At seventeen, Verity lost the future she’d craved when Nick, her enigmatic and troubled poet boyfriend, drowned at sea. At thirty-five, in a safe, humdrum and uninspired life, she finds that snatches of the life she didn’t have begin to force their way into her real life. This other life, more vivid and demanding than her actual life, begins to gather a terrible momentum as she starts to understand that her un-lived life was not the poetic dream she had imagined it might be. Doubting her own sanity as her other life comes crashing down around her in a series of disasters, Verity is forced to re-examine her past, realign her present and somehow reclaim a future where both her own early creative promise and her family can exist and flourish together. Exploring the nature of time itself, the possibilities of parallel universes and the poetic expressions of both, Verity searches to understand why and how Nick really died and what her own lives, lived and un-lived, might truly mean.”

‘From the unknown spaces between what is, was, and will be, messages and sendings break through into Verity’s life: are they nightmares of a parallel reality or projections from a love that has flown? Vivienne Tuffnell keeps us guessing with utmost artistry as we trace the interweaving way-marks in pursuit of the truth. Little Gidding Girl kept me enthralled until the very end.’ – Caitlín Matthews, author of Singing the Soul Back Home, and Diary of a Soul Doctor

The UK link is here for the paperback:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Little-Gidding-Girl-Vivienne-Tuffnell/dp/154460016X/

I’ve set up a cyber party on Facebook here:

https://www.facebook.com/events/134936727080106/

 

A cyber party involves discussions, pictures, music, laughs and chats and is a chance for people to show support and encouragement while not having to have a physical party. That way people from all around the world can attend, in their pjs if they wish! There’s no pressure to buy, just to have a bit of fun.

That said, I DO want folks to buy. That’s part of being an author: you want folks to buy your books.

I can’t emphasise enough also how vital early reviews are to the visibility of a new book.  I hate asking and I don’t want to be that annoying author who pesters, but it does make a difference. Nor do reviews have to be complicated or long, just as long as there’s no spoilers. I’ve read reviews over the years (of many books) where the reviewer is basically doing a book report the way they did for books at school; that usually means they contain content that can spoil the book for others.

So if you’re on Facebook, do invite yourself along (I can only invite a certain number) or you can always sign up on my Amazon page to be notified when new books are available.  Or you can simply wait for another blog, announcing the birth of a new book.

It’s exciting but also terrifying.

What to do while you’re waiting for the postman…

What to do while you’re waiting for the postman…

About ten days ago, I wrestled my way through the long-put-off edits for Little Gidding Girl, excising any direct quotes from T.S. Eliot and adding in numbers for footnotes so that the discarded lines could be referenced by readers should they choose to do so. Then I did yet another read-through for typos and stuff of that ilk, before uploading the completed text to Createspace. After the usual twelve or so hours wait, I got the notification that I could now order proofs.

Said proof copies are due to arrive by the 2nd of June. All of a sudden, it looks like this book might actually be happening after all.

Truth is, I’m unprepared. My brain seems to have gone into a state of acute fogginess, and my psyche has become frozen and unable to respond. Everything feels like it’s been slowed down; holding a conversation feels like I’m talking on a satellite phone to someone half a world away. There’s a delay between hearing and understanding, and another delay between understanding and replying.

I know that by this stage in the game other (successful) writers have their strategies for launch day in place. Blogs have been written, giveaways organised, tweets scheduled, FB party invites sent out, interviews conducted and your Street Team are all ready with their pom-poms and chants. Me, I’ve done nothing.

This is the first full-length piece of fiction to be released since Square Peg was published in April 2013. Four years is a long time. Yes, I managed to get The Hedgeway out in the October of 2014, and I’ve got the book of essays out and two books of poetry. But I’m a novelist who hasn’t released any novels for four years and I worry that the momentum I’d built has long since dissipated and readers have found other authors to enjoy.

I’m not even sure what LGG could be classified as. Broadly speaking it fits into “Women’s Fiction” but only because the main character is female. It’s not a romance, though love is involved. It’s not a mystery, though mystery is involved too. It’s not paranormal, though elements of it veer into that area. It’s not magical realism, or fantasy or coming-of-age, though again, it has aspects of all of them. No wonder my unlamented agent never managed to place it with publishers; there’s not a single nice easy label to slap on it and shove it out into the world. I’d call it literary fiction but there’s a pretentiousness that many associate with that genre that I’d rather avoid.

So despite a lot of head-scratching and cogitating, I can’t find any niche where it’d gain any sort of prominence amid the countless thousands of books released every week. It may be doomed to sink under the weight of those thousands and of my incompetence.

You may already have read the blurb, here or elsewhere, but here it is again:

At seventeen, Verity lost the future she’d craved when Nick, her enigmatic and troubled poet boyfriend, drowned at sea. At thirty-five, in a safe, humdrum and uninspired life, she finds that snatches of the life she didn’t have begin to force their way into her real life. This other life, more vivid and demanding than her actual life, begins to gather a terrible momentum as she starts to understand that her un-lived life was not the poetic dream she had imagined it might be. Doubting her own sanity as her other life comes crashing down around her in a series of disasters, Verity is forced to re-examine her past, realign her present and somehow reclaim a future where both her own early creative promise and her family can exist and flourish together. Exploring the nature of time itself, the possibilities of parallel universes and the poetic expressions of both, Verity searches to understand why and how Nick really died and what her own lives, lived and un-lived, might truly mean.

It’s a book that I think might well strike a chord or two with many women, but if you’re expecting a kick-ass heroine like Chloe or Isobel, you might get a surprise. Verity is quiet, but they say it’s the quiet ones you want to watch. She thinks things she never says, and she lives under daily bullying without apparent complaint; she puts others before herself and she lives a half life that many women might really relate to.

So what am I doing while I wait for the proof copies to wing their way across the Atlantic? Not a lot. I can’t set a date for a launch party until I’ve seen those copies are what I want them to be. I’ve had too many false starts with this book to want to risk that. What I would like, though, is for friends here and on social media, if they have read and liked my books, to consider potentially hosting a blog for me, or doing an interview (especially after they’ve read the book) asking questions about the book and its themes, over the next few months. People have said that the majority if a book’s sales come in the first weeks, and that might well be the case, but I am hoping that enough folks have been waiting impatiently for this one for some sales to be guaranteed at least. The staggered approach means that more exposure is likely to happen once the initial surge (please!) has begun to ebb.

I’m terrified, to be honest. What if no one likes it? What if no reviews happen? Away With The Fairies finally made it to the magic 50 reviews a few months back after being out for six years, but realistically speaking, I think that getting lots of reviews in the first few weeks might well carry more weight in the mysterious algorithms.

And there’s a shockingly large amount of me in this book, too, so it’s a risk, sending it out into the world, because not only are some of my own poems included in the book, but some of my own, secret, never-spoken-about, history is too. I’ve not mentioned this aspect because, well, because it is secret and private. It’s entirely fiction, yet in many important ways, it’s not at all. I’d tell you more but then I’d have to kill you… (that’s a joke, by the way)

So while I wait for that familiar brown parcel, I ought to get my thinking cap on and write some more blog posts, for here and for others who might be so gracious as to host them. I seem to have mislaid that thinking cap, so perhaps a scarf might do.

Cause for celebration or commiseration?

Cause for celebration or commiseration?

(This is going to be one of those posts that might get on the nerves of the optimists among you, so perhaps bear with me rather than tutting. I could do with a bit of compassion and understanding right now.)

On Monday I completed a book I began more than four years ago. Coming in at a fairly slender 73k words, it’s provisionally entitled Belle Dame, and it’s the first full length work I’ve managed to finish in a whisker over six years. Someone said the other day that it’s the dream of many people to actually write a book and that finishing one is a cause for celebration, but I’m ambivalent about it these days.

But finishing this book is a bigger deal than that. Around six years ago, a variety of connected events pretty much ended me as a writer. They almost ended me as a person, and while I’m not going to go into details, they’ve left scars. Compounded with the insidious effects of Dexter my parathyroid tumour (now removed) and the effects of joint hypermobility syndrome (which is much more than being a bit bendy), I lost the flow and the joy of writing books. Belle Dame was a project that tied into my exploration of finding some healing for the original events and the knock-on effects, as well as more prosaically being able to say, “Yes, I am still a writer. I’m working on X book.” I’m actually working on about five other books too, but none anywhere close to completion.

Belle Dame was also a way of trying to find a kind of closure denied me in real life, and that function of the book meant that I could not think how to end the story that honoured my beliefs and philosophies, as well as being a satisfying ending to the tale itself. It was, to put it bluntly, a real conundrum. I set myself a final deadline of Monday, saying to myself if I did it, I would use birthday money to buy a special treat I’d been coveting for over a year. When I did type THE END on Monday afternoon, I felt flat. I’d seen over the last few years other writers on social media waxing lyrical about what a terrific feeling it is to type those epic words, and how fabulous it it. Yet I felt nothing more than a sense of relief, and a sense also of mild dread. No one has read it yet (except me of course and I don’t count) and I’m not sure I want anyone to. I can’t face even the well-chosen critiques of people who love me and love my writing. I certainly can’t face the idea of publishing it. To put it out there for anyone to read and rip apart, horrifies me. Equally, I’m not sure I can face the more likely reality of publishing it and having an echoing, deafening silence because no one buys it and no one reads it, because no one really cares (out there in the big bad world of books) how long a book took an author to write or what it cost them in terms of emotional angst and agony. The bottom line at present seems to be this: if it’s free, people might grab it but not read it, if it costs a few quid, a few might take a punt on it, and if it’s priced the same as a posh coffee, your friends might buy it to support you. There are too many books out there these days to have much of a chance of gaining attention if you don’t write in the really popular genres and if you’re not also an entrepreneur.

A friend made the suggestion that perhaps I should return to seeking traditional publishing deals, because getting attention and sales for my kind of books now is perhaps beyond the remit of self-publishing and my skills therein. That too I cannot face. I’ve been through that mill twice, with all the pain that entails. I’m also pretty anti publisher. I am, to quote the friend, between a rock and a hard place.

Little Gidding Girl is also stuck. I’ve decided that the only way of avoiding a whole world of trouble with permissions and copyright issues without basically supping with the devil, is to rewrite the last fifty pages so that they work without the quotes I’d originally used (believing at the time that a publisher would deal with that side of things for me. How naïve I was.) This will take more courage and energy I have right now. I suspect I’ll wake up one morning and think, today’s the day and just do it, but at the moment I cannot get my brain around it. Again, the feeling of dread persists. I don’t want to publish the book and after half a dozen kind friends buy a copy, for it to sink into the swamp of forgotten books. It boils down to this: people read for very different reasons from the ones I write for (if that makes sense). I’ve never written solely to entertain and while my books are entertaining, there’s more than that to them.

I bought my treat with some glee, but I don’t feel I have achieved any sort of inner celebration for this book and that’s dreadfully sad. This may be connected to the very persistent low mood aka depression I’ve begun to realise is probably my lot for life now; the inability to feel anything is a classic symptom of depression.

But all that not withstanding, I did it. I finished the book and next time you have a nice glass of wine, whiskey or whatever your tipple is, tip that glass to me and wink, and silently whisper, “Congratulations!” and maybe I’ll feel it too.