Among my side projects are a pair of novellas. The first is American Sons, which ties into my upcoming story universe. The second is At All Costs, a standalone story in what might be another story universe. The first drafts were completed in January, and they are in the final phases of editing. There’s just one last thing to do: cover design.
Authors who sign on with publishing houses have access to their art departments. Independent writers, on the other hand, have to source their own covers. It can be a frustrating process. I’ve been doing this for a bit now, and there are some things I figured out along the way.
There are two ways to get a cover. The first is to do it yourself. The second is to hire someone to do it for you. Unless you are a graphic designer as well, the former is not an option.
The single most important element in a book (after the actual story!) is the cover. A good cover nets lots of sales, reputation and reviews. A bad cover will attract negative comments, and few to nothing sales. Between an interesting-looking cover and a plain- or amateurish-looking one, people tend to look at the former. The latter may also prejudice a customer against the quality of your work right from the start.
Digital publishing and electronic storefronts raises its own set of problems. In an online bookstore, the customer will be looking at one-inch thumbnails at best. If they’re lucky, they may even see a blurb, but don’t count on it. Amazon, for instance, only shows blurbs when a customer opens the page dedicated to a book. In other contexts, such as recommendations and random searches, it only shows the cover. To be noticed, you need a cover that attracts attention in the face of multiple recommendations and search returns, especially if your book is listed alongside books from large publishing houses with proportionately large art departments and art budgets.
You need someone with expertise and experience. You need a professional.
Unless you are one…hire one. Your book is worth it.
The boon and bane of indie writing is total control. You get the rights to everything, including cover design. That means you are responsible for conceptualising it, if only so you can communicate it to a designer.
There are many, many, many blog posts out there on the principles of cover design. I won’t touch too much on this. What I will say is that you have to think about size.
Your cover will have to appear in three sizes: full size, perceived size, and thumbnail.
‘Full size’ is the actual image you’ll upload on the storefront. Many distributors, such as Apple and Smashwords, have minimum size requirements, so your cover ideas must fit inside that page. ‘Perceived size’ is the cover your customer will see when they pick up the book or enter the book’s URL. ‘Thumbnail’ is what they’ll see when they search for your book online.
The cover has to work in all three sizes. You can conceptualise a sprawling, magnificent city with gleaming mile-high skyscrapers, but it won’t be particularly useful if the thumbnail shot reduces it to a blurry mass of browns, yellows and a hint of white.
The best approach I’ve found is to use large, outstanding objects, simple but elegant designs, and high-contrast colours. Fine details will simply get lost. If you have a cover artist, give her the barest minimum of details — character description, keywords, reference images, similar covers, important themes or colours — and then get out of her way. If you ARE a graphic designer, then you’ll know more than I do about mixing colours, placing objects and text, and other things like that. All you need to keep in mind is size.
You pays your money, you takes your chances
Let’s assume you hire a pro to handle your cover. There’s old saying that comes to mind: Fast, cheap and good. Pick any two. It applies in this field too. There are three kinds of professionals out there: the cheap, the good, and the graphic artists.
The cheap professionals deliver covers on a budget, roughly USD$40-80. These are good for people with a very tight budget, simple cover ideas and hobbyist writers. Generally speaking, they buy stock images, move them about until they fit your cover idea, then add the title and your name. While it can be good enough for some writers, you do get what you pay for. Professional writers who need high-quality cover art are advised to pay more for better art.
The good professionals spend more time and energy on covers, and charge somewhere between USD$100-400. Like the above, they also work with stock images for the most part. However, they also offer artwork: custom-made backgrounds, modification of stock images to your liking, special fonts and colours, and so on. The higher-end ones tend to drop stock images and just focus on art, sometimes working with images if you provide any. If you’re a pro, this is the minimum quality you should be shooting for. If your budget is still pretty tight, some of these pros have premade covers for sale, of equal quality but at a cheaper price, and are worth looking at. But do understand that these designers primarily work with stock images, and the cover will be limited by available stock images. If you are, like me, persnickety about details, working with stock images may prove challenging.
If you absolutely, positively, want your cover to be done precisely to your specifications, that’s when you turn to a graphic designer. Suppose you’ve designed some very special high-speed gear for your protagonist, and you want the reader to visualise it the way you do. That’s when sourcing a graphic designer is your best bet. They’ll work closely with you, creating the image completely from scratch. As a bonus, the art looks more naturalistic and in tune with the background. However, these designers are really expensive. I understand market rate is around USD$900-1000 for real pros. Plus, while you can get your designer to produce a super-detailed cover, all that detail will be lost on a one-inch thumbnail. It’s fine if you’re selling paper books, where the reader can admire the cover in its full glory, but not so much if you’re just publishing strictly digital.
When thinking about prices, think investment. A cover is an investment, and the sales it generates is a return on investment. That means you should have an idea of yourself, your audience and expected sales. If you’re just writing for pleasure, a cheap artist will allow you to pursue your hobby without burning a hole in your pocket. If you’re in writing for a long-term career, a good cover designer would give you the quality you need to attract customers — and repeat customers. If you have a ready audience willing to buy your books, and if detail is very important to them and you, the graphic designer will meet your needs.
Timing, timing, timing…
Everything takes time. Including cover design. Sitting on your hands, waiting for your next cover, is generally not conducive to a smooth writing career or mindset. Generally, budget at least one month, preferably two, for the artist to finish your cover. Then ask yourself what you can do in a month.
These days, I start thinking of the cover when I’m a quarter to halfway through the story. At the three-quarter mark, I have the concept finalised. The moment the first draft is done, it’s off to the cover designer. Different people have different work schedule and time needs, so think about what you do and how long you need to do it, and plan accordingly.
This is, of course, assuming things go well. Strange things happen. I’ve had emails mysteriously disappear, cover designers meeting with accidents and falling ill, covers that were difficult to conceptualise…the list goes on. Factor in time for delays too. That way, you’ll be pleasantly surprised if your designer delivers ahead of time.
Final thoughts: Your writing and you
The kind of cover you want depends on your approach to writing. If you’re a hobbyist, you want to minimise the cost of writing, and a cover is one of them. If you’re a pro, though, a cover is an investment. Think about covers with an eye for the long-term, to attract customers both now and in the future, to gain a return on investment. If you’re small-time, start small; if you’re established, investing more generally makes more sense.
A cover shouldn’t just reflect your story. It should also consider your approach to writing, your financial situation and your level of reputation. There may come a time when you need to compromise somewhere. As a rule of thumb, little details can be dropped, character design can be flexible, and prices negotiable. But covers must always reflect the story and the people in it. That is the one thing you cannot compromise.
Once upon a time I had my life all planned out. Go through school, and write. Graduate, and write. National Service, and write when I can. Further my education, and write. Sustain myself with part-time and freelance work, and write. Repeat the last step until I have a viable writing career.
I achieved my goals. All except the last one — for now. I’ve written and published every substantial Michael Chang story I’d planned. I’ve written a bunch of other stories, which may make it into print or the Internet sometime soon. I’ve also met my current education goals (and exceeded them).
I was younger then. Less concerned about practical matters. Sure, I’d accomplished almost everything I’d set my heart towards, but they don’t exactly pay the bills. Much less prepare for marriage, a new home, all the major milestones in life. There was the little problem of the Michael Chang stories not meeting my minimum standards anymore. And the small matter of tax reliefs exceeding annual income twice in a row.
Times change. People change. So do I.
That means getting a job. Actually a few, the way things are going. That seems to be coming along pretty nicely. But it means that I can’t dedicate as much time to writing as I used to. It means a lower story output, longer times between publications, a marked revamp of my internal writing schedule. That’s a bit galling, now that I’m committed to writing full-length novels whose estimated length is a hundred thousand words apiece, and that I’m in an industry where success seems predicated on releasing as many high-quality works as fast as you can. It feels counter-intuitive to give up the one element — time — that allows me to do just that.
But if I play my cards right, it means I’ll be able to keep on living. And writing.
Sacrifice is a common theme throughout many world religions, spiritual paths, and codes of conduct. At its heart, sacrifice is about giving up something lesser to gain something greater. Everything has its price. The price of being able to continue writing — and living long enough to do it — is some of the time I could have spent on writing. But the prize…
…is simply another life. Hopefully a life that takes me closer to that long-ago dream of being an international bestseller. Writing has never been a hobby for me. Right from the beginning I wrote with an eye towards being a professional. I haven’t given that up. I won’t. But that means adjusting the rest of my life to make it possible. Changing. Dropping that which holds me back.
A new life beckons. An old chapter closes, and a new one awaits.
On December 2011 I published my first Michael Chang novella. Since then I’ve published three more stories. There are more. There would have been more. But when I think back on them, compare them to my current projects, I have to drop the Michael Chang series.
One and three make four. Four is the number of death in Chinese superstition, because it sounds phonetically similar to the character for death. It took me four books to realise that everything about the Michael Chang series wasn’t going where I wanted it to go. Every story I wrote, I had that niggling sense that it was good, but not great. The feeling only grew stronger with each published story. Now I can put my finger on it.
The stories felt cold, lacking vitality, caught in a state between life and death. They were obsessed with petty things, little niggardly conflicts between small people that could be easily resolved just by walking away. There was no great conflict, over-reliance on mechanics instead of characters, and a sense that the stories weren’t living up to the full potential of the universe. That the stories were locking themselves into a tiny box instead of embracing the totality of their universe. When I read it again, the series felt like an embolus swimming in the blood, gathering mass to clog an artery and stop a heart. It was like the death of creativity in slow motion.
Place one and three side-by-side and you get 13. Thirteen is also associated with death in Western superstition.
The numbers 1, 2, 3 and 13 have held special meaning in my life. There are 13 letters in my name. I was born on a 26, which is 2 13s. There are 6 letters in my transliterated Chinese name, 2 3s. 9 if you include my surname, which makes 3 3s. I finished writing my 1st novel when I was 13. That one was lost in a computer crash. I started novel no. 2 the next day. By my third story I figured I really could make a career out of writing. I published 1 Michael story, then 3 more, which makes 4, which is 2 2s. To date, there are 13 Michael Chang stories. The original story that created the foundation of the universe, 2 unwritten novels that could have taken the universe in different directions, 2 partially written ones that could have explored the universe further, 4 finished-but-unpublished, and 4 published/ Today is the 13th day of March. This is my 76th post, and 7 and 6 gives you 13. And the year is 2013.
When the world conspires to help you, this is the language it speaks.
The above was an example of a tiny part of the original vision I had for Michael Chang, the way arc numbers would float in and out of his life in the strangest of ways, especially in critical times. There would have been other ideas: travels to different worlds, a man grappling with his twin duties of healer and killer, a cold-eyed look at human problems. Things could have been different. Bigger. Better.
But that’s okay. I realise now that back then I didn’t have the experience or the skill to fully realise the stars I’d sketched in my mind. In a sense I needed to write all those stories, to learn from them and draw what lessons I could. Way back then, for all the experience I had, I was just a beginner, experienced enough to know where I might be going wrong. Not what I was doing right. There was a large gap between my ability and my ambition.
American radio personality Ira Glass spoke for 2 minutes about this here. He said everybody engaged in creative work goes through a phase like that. The only way out is through. To produce a huge volume of work, to keep at it until you’ve got something good, something real, something that lives up to your expectations or beyond.
I did that. Through end 2011 to early 2013, that’s exactly what I did, intensifying my efforts from December 2012 to February 2013. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. And at the end of it all, I crafted a short story and a novella that met my ambitions. Stories that lived up to the standards I aspired to, and beyond.
I’ve published an earlier form of the story, Blowback, on this blog. The novella, titled American Sons, will be published as soon as the cover art and final edits are ready. American Sons ushers in a whole new universe titled American Heirs. I’ve begun work on Keepers of the Flame, the first American Heirs novel. If anything, Keepers of the Flame is even better than American Sons.
Compared to that, Michael Chang feels inadequate. I own that work, all of it, and it even made me some pocket change. But its time is past. It’s time for it to die.
Kill your darlings, the writing gurus say. It usually applies to editing. You can craft a beautiful, heart-wrenching moment, or pages of backstory that informs a character’s motivations, or have someone solve P vs NP, but if it adds nothing to the story it has to go. If an adjective or adverb, tag or character, chapter or subplot, doesn’t add to the story, it has to go. All you have to do is think bigger, and you can apply this maxim to stories and series too.
This isn’t the end of Michael Chang. Not by a long shot. In tarot, 13 is the card of Death, and Death is the card of change. It’s the scythe that sweeps a field clean, paving the way for new growth. Death is an ending, and a beginning. Michael Chang will be back. Maybe under a different name, with different characters and slightly different concepts, but the concepts will return. After I’m done with American Heirs, I’ll look through the series again, and work on rebooting it.
Michael is not dead but dreaming, and that which is not dead will not eternal lie.
Yes, I made a few mistakes. I admit to that, and I promise I will edit my work more thoroughly before submitting them.
So let’s make a couple of things clear. By live-tweeting, I meant to say that Lynn maintained contact with her friends throughout this incident, who live-tweeted and live-blogged about it, especially on the third day.
By ‘Lee’s accusation of harassment’, I should have said ‘the narrrative of police harassment is bolstered by people who do not make a distiction between legal standards and personal opinions and feelings’.
This article was originally a two-parter, with the other half an interview with Lee by another TOC reporter. The interview was called off after Lee gave her version of events, but I went ahead with the article based on what she wrote. Well, what I thought she wrote, and we saw how well that turned out.
I will point out that my comment on ‘ongoing investigation’ referred to the bus drivers, not her. The police did say they aren’t investigating her, but their deeds are very much like an investigation into a suspect under the Criminal Procedure Code. It seems that they are gathering information about her to see if she did warrant a full criminal investigation. That was what I should have written. I don’t know about Lee, but I prefer looking at actions and understanding why people do what they do before passing judgment.
As for Lee’s credibility and training, I’m sure her training does her well in life. But unless she demonstrates a background in actual police work, her opinion on what constitutes evidence in a criminal investigation still doesn’t hold any weight. Failing that, actual experience in examining a criminal investigation would do–but if she had any, she didn’t say.
But that’s nitpicking. The remark was made in the context of the police not knowing who she is and what she knows. They cannot take her word at face value. They have to examine everything.
Lee asks if there were cheering and booing. I saw plenty of that in my Facebook feed. But, well, I suppose I shouldn’t generalise. It was another mistake.
Regarding what she thought I thought about her exchanges with the police, she ironically makes the same mistake she accuses me of, that of concocting fiction and pretending to know what someone else is thinking. I inserted that quote from Thompson’s book to provide context for my point about the police needing soft skills training. She took that remark out of context. I did not mean to imply that there were teeth-gnashing moments. But the officers came off as ignorant and overly-confrontational, which verbal judo would prevent. It was about perception of the police by someone of a particular personality type, not how she interacted with the police.
I don’t think Lee is hindering the police by questioning them. I think she is simply mistaken about why they have to be so invasive. I also don’t think the police should expect slavish compliance; my article contains a list of questions for the police, questions about their conduct, procedures, the legal basis of seizing Lee’s property.
The closest I got to talking about outright compliance was for tactical reasons, by not further provoking a potential suspect cop (who, I might add, has plenty of weapons on his person), so you survive to file a complaint. I did not say people shouldn’t question the police, only that they should first understand context.
Lee calls my article long, overwrought and overly presumptuous. Even I thought it was too long. But I don’t write to create memorable talking points, reinforce narratives, or to feel good about myself. I refuse to look and write about things from a singular perspective, devoid of context. That way lies ignorance.
Here, I sought to share what little I think I know about police work, having known policemen all my life. I went forth to understand and highlight the narratives and requirements and beliefs that informed how the police have acted and how the people reacted to her piece. That meant providing context. I wish I can find a better way to communicate this more efficiently, but I’m not quite at that standard yet.
Yes, I made a few factual mistakes, and for that I apologise. But the crux of what I wrote still stands, that the police were doing their jobs, and a couple failed to meet the highest professional standards. The world is not black and white. It is both and all colours in between.
Just one thing to highlight. As far as I could tell, Kirsten Han and Vincent Wijeysingha made the initial accusations of police harassment on Facebook and Twitter. Not Lynn Lee.
At the beginning of the year I joined a group with a single aim: In the month of January, produce 50000 words. It’s like the National Novel Writing Month, but in January instead of November.
Cut to thirty days later.
I’ve completed two novellas. Roughly one week per story. Both are military science fiction, one is probably rougher than the other, but I intend to publish both someday soon. Comes to 42229 words.
In the other two weeks, I was working on a variety of writing related stuff. People who follow The Online Citizen would notice that I was covering rallies, walkabouts and other matters during the Punggol East by-election. I also put together other writing-related stuff, lesson plans and proposals and the like. Total of 13373 words.
Put them all together and you get 55602 words.
Technically, I haven’t quite met the goal if you count fiction alone. But if there weren’t a by-election, or if I didn’t have to write the proposals, I might have met the goal. I do intend to try this again, maybe not for NaNoWriMo, but for some other occasion.
Still. The point of writing this is not to show off. (Well, not just to show off.) When I was in primary school I wrote a full-fledged novel. 300 A4 pages long. 300 pages of utter rubbish.
And that was the problem. I wrote to meet a self-imposed page count. But little else. Now, a little older and wiser, I wrote to meet other expectations. In both novellas, I didn’t just put words down for the sake of having words. I tried to put together actual plots, inserted as much craft as I could, and generally tried to capture the experience of warfighting in the future. I’m not sure how well I did, but it was definitely better than my boyhood attempt.
I’ve long known I could put together novel-length works with enough willpower. But that’s not enough for me now. If I am to become a successful novellist I need more than words on paper. I’ll need stories with heart, characters with soul, worlds that stand to scrutiny and words that resonate in the reader’s soul. And to do this, and more, for the length of my career.
Publishing has changed dramatically, but one thing remains: quality of writing. The only way to improve is to write with an eye towards growth, and that is what I do with every story I write.
To do this, I think there are some questions writers should keep in mind when writing. I’ve outlined them below.
1. What am I trying to accomplish with my story? How does the story meet this?
2. How will my characters, given their background, talk, act, feel and think in this situation?
3. What is the arc of the narrative? How dependent is it on plot holes, out-of-character stupidity and other mistakes?
4. What is the setting like? What is the atmosphere created? How is it relevant to the story? Does it hold up to scrutiny?
5. How do the words I choose contribute to the story? How do they not contribute? What feelings do they evoke, if at all? What deeper meaning do they evoke, if at all?
6. How do the answers of the above questions serve the story goal outlined in the first question?
These questions are like blueprints. They keep you on track while you’re building the story. It’s easy to get lost in the writing and lose sight of the larger goal. The point of writing isn’t to pad out word counts — it’s to communicate. So the story comes first, words just help you get there.
In the stories I’ve written, I hope to have answered these questions as well as I could. I do my best, and I strive to do better each time. And with any luck, it might even pay off one day.
Word counts are good for people who want to keep track of their work. But it’s not the be-all and end-all of writing. Words are just that: words. They are the building blocks of your story, but too many blocks or too few or putting them in the wrong place makes a building weird. The story comes first — everything else is secondary.
Synopsis as follows:
The alluring Shivakti, last seen in WATCHMAN, comes to Michael Chang. A demon is haunting her home, and she needs his help to drive it out.
But the demon isn’t what she says it is…and neither is she. Surrounded by lies and moral ambiguity, and wrapped up in plots mortal and divine, Michael Chang needs to find a way to the light. In doing so, he seeks justice for downtrodden migrant workers, penetrates the dark heart of the repatriation industry, and must prevent a war between two rival gods.
While this book is standalone, I encourage you to read the previous books in the series for a fuller understanding of the characters and situation. Especially Watchman. (Big hint!)
In 2012 I achieved most of the goals I set out to achieve. I finished the first batch of Michael Chang stories, participated in a competition, blogged (a bit) more often, got on social media, started work on the next batch of stories, even made a bit of money out of writing. But there were things I didn’t do. I thought I could have started the website, put the stories out to print, automated the ebook purchasing process and blogged more often.
In 2013, I want to do more. I want to make up for the failings of 2012, and maybe expand my writing skills and repertoire. With this in mind, these are my goals for 2013.
1. Write 3 novels. In 2012 I produced a concept for a post-post apocalyptic military science fiction cyberpunk trilogy (yes, that’s a mouthful!). Tentatively titled Eschaton, the series will take my writing to a different direction. I only hope I can live up to its aspirations.
2. Write at least 6 other stories. I figure I should get into writing short fiction sooner or later. 2013 seems to be the best chance for doing this.
3. Blog more often (at least once a fortnight)
4. Get the website up and running, with automated ebook purchase options.
5. Get the Michael Chang stories into print.
6. Negotiate a way to bring the Michael Chang anthology into Singaporean bookshops.
To be honest, I’m not even sure I can accomplish all this. It’s a lot of stuff to do, and I need to get a real job come 2013. But to do big things, you have to dream big. And I sure want to do big things in 2013.