Digital Publishing – Notes from the Field

When that first manuscript is complete and you step back from the keyboard to consider what you have created, there comes a point when you have to decide just what you will do with it.  There are a few options, but what we all want to do is have our work seen, in one form or another and that almost always means publishing.

The traditional publishing route is fraught with difficulty and negative experiences that might falsely give the impression that your work is inadequate.  The other side to that coin is self-publishing, which once held the stench of desperation, failure, and misplaced pride in a way that almost no other business venture did.  It was the last avenue for writers who could not break through to publishers or the agents who held the keys to the kingdom of literary recognition.

Let’s not mince any words here; getting your message through to publishers and agents is difficult.  The advice you will hear is varied and at times contradictory on how to even begin.  The changing market for online publication has opened up a host of new opportunities that for some are a more preferable option than the old ways.  If your desire is to go it alone, with some planning and a willingness to let your work speak for you, digital self-publication offers a great deal of flexibility and opportunity.

To begin, I feel like I need to reinforce one key idea here; digital publishing on your own is all about persistence and perhaps a bit of savvy.  Online publication options have changed the publishing landscape in a fundamental way.  Let’s begin with the assumption that you are a capable writer and you have a good story to tell.

What do you have to do in order to succeed now?  You have to be as good as you think you are.  An avenue for your work to be judged by the people who matter most is open to you however, the proof of your work has to stand on its own.  What I would like to do here is set forth the five things I believe are necessary for engaging the world of digital publishing and for helping your work to stand out as something exceptional.  It’s not a path I’ve mastered, like you I am an adventurer in this new untamed wilderness.  Like all other trailbreakers, our survival and success depends on learning from those who have gone before and by sharing the tools of our trade.

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“House of Cards” Now Available on Amazon!

I am happy to announce that the sequel to “Master of the House” is now available for purchase on Amazon.  Download a copy of ”House of Cards” here.

HoC Final CoverJulian’s Syndicate has made a name for itself in the vicious streets of Seaside. They have money, respect, and the favor of the criminal mastermind known as Turnbill.But the winds of change have begun to blow, and Julian’s house of cards is about to come crashing down around him.The rising fortunes of his organization have drawn the attention of Envy, an ancient incarnation of sin who is foretold to bring about the end times.

When Envy gives the people of Seaside a hero of her own making, Julian and his allies must find a way to thwart this false messiah from the shadows before the great City State unwittingly barters its soul for security.

 
You can find my previous book “Master of the House” on Amazon as well.  While they can both be read independently, you’ll only get the full picture of this story arc by reading both books.
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Cover Concepts: Visualizing a Theme

HoC-Rough-Draft-704x1024

If there is one thing I am guilty of in my writing (ok, there are quite a few, but one specifically that I take a small amount of pride in), it is my attempts to tie a number of individual stories into one powerful theme.  I feel that cover art should be the reader’s first opportunity to recognize that theme because quite contrary to popular opinion (and possibly contrary to good sense) we most certainly do judge a book by its cover.  So when I go about sketching my crude designs for a cover I know that not only does the art need to connect with the story, it has to tell the story with a single glance.

The cover for Master of the House essentially ends up being one of those portraits that wealthy families or corporations commission of their important people to denote success. It is a snapshot in time that says, “Look here.  We are powerful and we will be remembered.”  Master of the House is a hard luck story of people overcoming adversity and their own failings even as the world around them descends into very dark times.  The book itself ends with a warning about how bad things will be for them going forward.  In a sense, the cover art, the portrait of those characters is the high water mark for their success amid the criminal empire of Seaside.  It also hopefully begs the question of the reader as to how the guy in the suit gets to be the one with power when surrounded by such obviously dangerous individuals.

Now we come to the sequel, House of Cards and the dire warning left for things to come:

No one, could have foreseen how quickly the delicate house of cards we had built would fall apart.

We were set against a creature whose designs on the world included the death of a God.

We would not escape unscathed.

Now I edited that slightly to avoid any real chance for spoilers, but between that passage and the title of the book, the reader knows things are about to fall apart.  The over arching story and the saga in Seaside in particular use the progression of the Fool in Tarot readings for its symbolism in accordance with growth and struggle.  With that being the case and this book being about a massive reversal of fortunes, I devised a cover scheme that would mimic the traditional callings of the Wheel of Fortune cards in Tarot decks.

Let’s go ahead and look at the first draft layout sent to me by my artist Josh.

HoC Rough Draft

So, the first thing to keep in mind is that this is a draft (a damn good one, but still a draft).  A few things, like the center character image, are only place holders.  Likewise, the character in the lower right corner just ended up disturbing the composition of the piece and was later removed.  Let’s talk about the symbolism for a moment and the not so obvious things.

One thing that I like in particular here, is the complicated steam and gear mechanics in the background.  The technology of this world is rooted in steampunk concepts and tropes, but it is played subtly, as if it is just something to accept.  The steampunk stylings are not the core concept of this world, but because there are some major technological intrusions in this story, I felt that placing the hint of it all there to be seen after the fact was a nice touch.  Especially because the actual wheel of fortune in this instance is a gear.  When the significance of this is revealed late into the book, I think anyone who notices all this will get look back with one of those ‘ah ha’ type moments.

Fortune-JacksonNow, the Wheel of Fortune is the card or event that symbolizes a turning point, the rise and fall of people and forces via events beyond our control.  Depending on the time period, the artist, and the style; the card will always depict a few central characteristics.  A heavenly presence, a central figure in or controlling the wheel (usually Fortuna), and one person rising on the wheel while another falls.

Knowing that this is the story about how things fall apart, there are some ominous tidings already in the cover that an attentive reader will pick up on.  Envy is clearly at the center of the wheel, marking her influence on the events that have transpired or will transpire.  Worse yet, is that the heavenly figure is replaced by a dragon who looms over every thing below, both good and evil.  Yet still through it all, despite his haggard appearance, it is Julian who is rising on the wheel of fate, showing that while things are certainly not good, hope has not yet died.

Of course, that leaves the fate of the character on the other side of the wheel entirely in question.  Someone is falling from grace while Julian is rising out of the fires.  Blame has to fall somewhere for such an occurrence and when your villains are incarnations of sin…we can be sure that the heroes will be held responsible somehow.

tarot-art-nouveau-italiano_MLA-O-89844479_8856So what of style?  The last cover held a very detailed, very oil painting like quality that marked the pomp and circumstance of Julian’s Syndicate.  This cover will diverge from that significantly.  After carefully considering the options and discussing the matter with Josh, we agreed that an art nouveau style was the perfect way to implement the sweeping changes that the picture was to depict.  I’m told that unruly lines and curves denote this style and that fit perfectly into my desire to see a cover that was more or less out of control (and to color outside the lines).

This example of art nouveau to the left captures the colorful movement and lack of crisp boundaries that we’re moving towards with the cover for House of Cards.

Stepping away from the thematic now, I thought it might be fun to give a look into how or why characters look the way they do and the way in which the discussion with your cover artist can influence that look.  For this example, I’m going to use Envy as the character in question.  I like to start general with the description, hitting the important notes and then working from there.  So, this was my initial description of Envy:

EnvyShe should look enticing, sexy even.  My idea is for her to be in a slender green dress that accentuates everything, blonde hair with sharp elven features.

One thing that I really have to point out here, and something that Josh would probably note as well, Envy aside, I have purposely avoided selling these covers to the audience by sleazing up the female cast members.  I really can’t stand the books that sell their story through the image of a female knight baring a midriff or who wears thigh high boots sans pants.  Point being, when I purposely noted that this charcter was meant to be alluring, it is to accentuate the fact that she is a Deadly Sin.

What I got back in regards to Envy’s distinct look was varied and provided a great range of choices.  Let’s look at them now, starting with the ones least fitting and ending with the option I eventually chose.

Envy3e

Let’s call this the “coy tom-boy” look.  To me, this is a very specific kind of appeal that doesn’t exactly hit the legendary beauty or temptation mark.  She is also somewhat more aware and smug than I wanted to show here.  The eyes and expression show off a threat that the heroes might understand, but is too well defined in the context of the story for now.

Envy2d

Here we encounter the same issue as before.  She is too assured, too outwardly dangerous or smug.  The most dangerous thing about this villain is her ability to use your own failings against you.  It is difficult to think that the clever character in the book woudl not immediately recognize this kind of character as dangerous.  In my mind, this was the “Spider Queen” look, very suitable for other ideas, just not right for this one.

Envy1aThis picture here, which I think of as the “Vallejo” look, is a perfect example of how your own discussion or idea can go just a bit too far in one direction despite being exactly what you were looking for.  The larger image of Envy here is enticing and she has that classic fantasy beauty to her.  It’s a great image, but it is also not exactly what I was looking for.  She’s cold and distant despite being attractive.  That being said, I almost went with this one because I am certain that colored in pastels, it would look amazing…

Envy1c

A surprise runner up, yet completely out of contention, I love this “Wild Child” look.  It was not Envy.  I knew that as soon as I saw it, but at the same time, I knew that this look could and should be recaptured for some other characters, likely the Shadow Elves.  She’s not prisitine enough here and there’s too much nature in the hair and gentle eyes.  I would love to use this as a base for other elven characters, especially the heroic ones.  She’s just not evil enough for Envy.

Envy1bAnd now we arrive at the chosen entry to represent Envy on the cover of House of Cards.  This particular look at her really captures the essense of this complex villain and her venomous allure.

This example nails the classic beauty ideal head on.  The slight tilt of her head and focused eyes portray the idea that she is considering her subject but do not betray the dark intent behind those thoughts.  Further, there is an innocence displayed here that in my mind, differs from the previous example with the “Wild Child”.  The innocent glance here is almost practiced, purposeful even.  This is a woman who has learned to destroy people by suggesting it to them as a best course of action, not someone who has to compell or force her victims into ruin.  When I think of dangerous beauty, this is where it takes me.

Thanks for taking a look at the design process and thanks to Josh Beach for allowing me to use some of the draft material in the discussion.  I hope to preview the cover a little bit prior to the book’s release this month.

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One picture, a thousand words, and a few dollars (more?)

In preparing Master of the House for digital publishing, I am beginning to look at what a reasonable price for an e-book would be.  I figure that my potential audience for this sort of thing would be the best place to pose the question.

So, there are a few options for this and a few things to consider.

This particular book is done in two distinct parts.  As a consumer, would you rather…

  1. Pay a small amount, $3 to $5 for Part 1 and then later $5 to $7 for Part 2.
  2. Pay a set amount, like $5 to $6 per portion of the complete work.
  3. Pay upfront for the entire thing at $8-12.

Each option has its merits.

Option #1 allows you to explore the world and perhaps decide that this story is not for you at a low over all cost.  The higher price of Part 2 would compensate for that.

Option #2 allows the buyer to avoid feeling like they were put into a “gotcha” kind of situation.  You’re paying for what you get outright but you may pay a little bit more overall if you decide to stop after Part 1.

Option #3 is more the “support the artist”, “I liked the concept so I’m all in” kind of purchase.  You may end up saving a dollar or two in this instance.

Please leave comments and opinions below.  Thanks!

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Short Story Friday: Absinthe Fueled Genius

It’s been a while since I’ve had time for a proper post or a short story update but to make up for it, this one is entirely new content.
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This story revisits Julian and Dori from Master of the House and will draw a connection to the ending of Children of the New Potential.  Enjoy and leave comments if you made it through.
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Absinthe Fueled Genius
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“What are we doing here?”  Julian looked down through his goggles towards Dori.  Since they had arrived in Lux their days had been spent lost in lazy sightseeing and expensive meals.  After everything that happened in Seaside, the respite was more than welcome.  It had taken some time to adjust, after all, their lives were not in constant danger and for the first time in a year, no one knew Julian’s name (fake or otherwise).  So when Dori began to take on that far away look in her eyes that told Julian she knew more than she was saying, he once again began to worry.

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Villains

Most stories live and die by the worth of their villains.  They are in one way of looking, the reason for telling stories.  There are rare exceptions.  Stories of self exploration and mastery, biographies, etc can all circumvent the need for an outside actor to move the plot along.  When it comes to fantasy fiction the need for an evil, an obstacle, or person of ill intent is key to the genre.

I think it can be very easy to slip into the trope of the mustache twisting black hat villain in fantasy fiction.  To avoid this, I think that rooting your story in the antagonist motivation is critical.  When I began conceptualizing the Legacy of Shadow series, I honestly did not have a set direction for it.  The world came first and presented me with problems that really bothered me and somewhat ruined the rationale for such a place.

I knew that I wanted some omnipresent force to oppose the heroes.  I knew that I wanted this force to be something that did not have to confront them directly, but that could corrupt their very reasons for stepping into the field of conflict.  My first attempt at the character who would become my ultimate villain for this series was known only by title: “The White Witch”.  Please bear in mind that at the time, I had absolutely no knowledge of The Chronicals of Narnia.  Seriously.  I didn’t.

This character was aloof and distant and somehow responsible for the trials and tribulations of the world I created in the Legacy of Shadow series.  She was generic and…boring.

So, I began to ask myself questions about her.  What had she done to be responsible for the undead curse placed upon the land?  Stepping back, I had to ask, what is she to begin with?  ”Elf” was the answer.  More specifically, a “Light” elf when compared to the thus far heroic “Dark” elves that this world and its characters encountered.  Then came the inversion, the typically heroic by nature good-guy forest elves would somehow be responsible for…what?  Or should it even be all of them?  Why not just one?  What if one member of this otherwise pristine race of creatures did something so terrible, that…

That what?  What could one character do that would be so condemning to vilify that character for all time?  The answer was:  she is responsible for the death of her entire race.  Already there were no light elves in the story but there were uncountable undead creatures.  So, this character became responsible for the death of her entire race and that genocide resulted in a world ravaged by undead hordes of elves.

Now we were getting somewhere.  It wasn’t very far down the road but the wheels were spinning.

What would make a character commit genocide on their own race?  Would it be purposeful?  Or would it be accidental?  Well, one thing that was certain in my mind was that this villain would be something that a reader could understand however, sympathy was not something I wanted to extend to her.  Accidental was right out.  Purposeful?  This was a more difficult thing to accomplish.

I was stuck.  I needed something beyond petty vengeance, something grand something…that was eluding me.  That’s when Jimi Hendrix happened to me.  That’s when I turned up the music in my car and happened to turn my ear at the right moment to hear the lyrics that unlocked the remainder of my story.

“Anger he smiles, towering in shiny metallic purple armor. Queen jealousy, envy waits behind him. Her fiery green gown sneers at the grassy ground…”

It wasn’t much but the idea of sins personified struck me just the right way.  It’s been done countless times, sure.  This time though I felt I had found a unique hook.  This “White Witch” became Envy in my mind, the personification of a unique and deadly power.  (Her color happily changed in my mind as well.)

What would the personification of Envy possibly find herself jealous of?  What would a creature with immense power and a hatred of anything more powerful than it turn its attention towards?  God.  That personified sin would turn its rage towards the one thing that truly held dominion over it, in this case God.  Now the genocide of a entire race could make sense within the context of one powerful entity looking to dethrone another.

Thus my Deadly Sin Envy, the Queen of Jealousy was born.

The reasons that surround her actions and the way in which she achieves her goals are all details that play out in the book but the important thing here is that the villain’s motivations are genuine and even though a reader would not agree with her actions, they can understand those motivations never the less.

I began this by commenting that a villain’s actions are the driving force for most plots.  While this is true for Envy’s actions as the story moves forward, she is still a somewhat distant, a force that can not be engaged for most of the tale.  Her motivations and the way by which she seeks to achieve those goals create a dread and even outright fear in other characters lending credence to their own actions.  This does not even speak to the ways when Envy does reach out into the moral realm, how characters who are directly touched by her actions take on a villainy all of their own.

Creating a complex villain on an epic scale has allowed me to tie characters, places, and most importantly a plot of epic scope into a story that has its roots in a concept that everyone can identify with “Too much is never enough”.

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120 Thousand Words or Bust

I never thought the problem facing me would be having too much content.

As I read more about the industry and what it takes to bring a book to market, I find that almost anything written over 120 thousand words is considered to be unmarketable.

With my first efforts coming in at twice that, I am left with some decisions to make.

The first option is to edit the book down, essentially cut it in half.  The second option is to split it into two different books.  The third and final option is to forgo the traditional publishing route and publish to the digital market.

If I’m honest about this and what I’ve written so far, the first option is right out.  The narrative works, the characters grow and are completely realized by the end of the work, and the story leaves nothing unfinished.  Gutting a considered work merely to bring it under an arbitrary standard will play out either by removing characterization or by requiring logic leaps on the part of the reader to get from one point to another.  I’ll have none of that.

Splitting the work down into two separate books is a viable option.  It’s not really the way I had planned for the story to unfold but it could be made to work.  Very close to the mid-point in Master of the House is a point of strong rising conflict and resolution that sets the stage for the final act.  With some reasonable editing and a slightly reworked ending to Chapter 9 of the book, I think this is a possibility.

Digital publishing is a topic I’ve discussed recently.  It’s an area of possibility that becomes more and more appealing the longer I look into these kinds of things.  Setting aside the “Is it good for your career” discussion, I feel that we’re on something of a digital frontier.  It seems that the time is right for embracing a new marketplace.  The way I look at it is like this…When was the last time you went to your home encyclopedias for information?  When was the last time you went to Wikipedia for the same information?  The digital realm  takes a lot of heat from older methods of doing things but when there’s a legitimate platform to work from, the field of possibility opens itself.  If I ever move towards digital publishing it will be to give myself more options, not as a means of retreat.

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Concept and Setting Presentation

How do you even begin to explain something like this?

A very fair question was asked about the story I’ve put together in Master of the House.  Thank you to SJ21 for posting it.

“One thing keeps popping up in my head though. In what time period is this story set? There are various references to old-style weapons, clothing, and armor. The characters seem to do a lot of walking to get where they are going. It seems that the story is set during a time of limited technology, but then there is a reference to a helicopter. A little more clarification of what is going on here would be helpful.”

This question may be the result of only having one chapter available to read upfront or it may be the result of a failing of my writing to explain the place and setting.  I’ve heard it asked of me on two different occasions, so I thought I might put some thoughts down and see if I can justify what I’ve written.

To answer the question directly, the setting of the book takes place in a time and location completely set apart from any other.  Conceptually, the book is a non-traditional fantasy setting with an emerging steam-punk bend to it.

I remember back to reading Dune for the first time and the way that the book unabashedly put you in the setting and allowed explanations to come about as it developed.  It was unapologetic about introducing concepts and words that were not explained by narrative at first.  I think in many ways, that is what I do here.  Explanations for the way these people live and the way that limited technology exists come about as they are necessary to the character interaction.

The book does ask you to roll with the premise for a while.  Perhaps that is a bad thing?  Perhaps it makes it difficult to follow, I am not entirely sure yet.  The solution is simple, concepts can be explained as they appear.  I may need to do this.

My eventual answer is that all of these things are explained fully as the book continues.  My question in response to anyone reading or viewing this is:

“Are new concepts within a (story) fictional story troublesome or distracting if the answers are not presented promptly upon their introduction?”  Or  ”Do these fictional concepts move you to turn the page and look for the answer?”

Thanks for taking time to read and to consider my material SJ21!

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