Judging a book by its cover

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but readers do, because a well-designed and produced cover gives them a good idea of what’s inside. It tells them what genre the book is, it suggests a broad theme of the book, and it advertises the author’s brand.

Everyone knows a historical when they see it. There’ll be a girl in a long dress on the front. I myself am partial to pics of women in black crinolines, not to mention tattoo images. If it’s a 20th century historical it’ll probably be a photo of some sort. Historical romances will also have girls in frocks, but with a bloke. Modern romances (especially hot ones) often just have the bloke, usually shirtless. I think you know what I mean.

I find crime covers oddly unspectacular (no offence at all meant to crime writers) – and I read a lot of crime novels. They all look the same to me, so if it’s not a writer I know and love, naturally I read the blurb, then the first page to check out the style. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was like that. So-so cover, fantastic read, though it was more thriller than crime. Paranormals tend to look similar, too, ditto science fiction, and they’re like that for a reason – so readers know what they’re getting. So the message is: do the same as everyone else (ie, you don’t want to put a ‘True Blood’ type cover on your rural romance), but better, so your book stands out.

A survey I saw a while ago reckoned that if a reader isn’t looking for a particular author, they’ll choose a book based on a) the cover, then b) the blurb, then c) the first page. So there you go. Covers are vital.

One book I’ve read lately, just because there’s a cute wee mouse wearing a cape on the front, is Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, a memoir by US humourist blogger Jenny Lawson. I wouldn’t have bought it without the mouse. It’s a good read, too.

Of course, if you’re traditionally published, you more or less get what you’re given, so you have to trust that your publisher knows what they’re doing. In my experience, they do. At a workshop at my publisher the other day, the designer said they send cover concepts to booksellers for feedback, because booksellers know what readers like and want.

It never does any harm to talk to your local bookseller.







The business of business cards

As a professional writer, ten years ago I decided I needed business cards, so I had some made up. Three years later I biffed most of them as I hadn’t used them. Recently, however, I’ve had another go as I’ve found myself occasionally scribbling my email address on the back of mangled old receipts dug out of the bottom of my handbag.

But what a job I had deciding on the design. You’d think it’d be easy, but it was worse even than writing a blurb or a shout line for a cover. To me, a business card should convey, at a glance, who I am as a writer. It should tell the receivee (is that a word?) that I write gritty, dark, sometimes even faintly paranormal, historical fiction. If it doesn’t do that, I might as well just have my name on a piece of white card. Which I did consider.

First, I looked online at the ready-made options offered by a couple of well-known business card providers. Searching under ‘writers’ I got old-fashioned typewriters, fountain pens, and feathered quills sticking out of inkwells. Not quite what I was after, so then I tried ‘Victorian’ and got loads of pretty ladies, roses and kittens. Nope, though the kittens were cute.

Damask? Stunning patterns, but the text wouldn’t show up so it’d have to go on the back, and who turns over a business card? Gothic? Definitely edgy, but all a bit OTT. I did see some cards I liked, but – naturally – they were all the pricier ones.

Sigh. What to do? Design one myself, obviously. So I hopped back on the net, tracked down an image from one of the more expensive cards I’d liked (out of copyright, fortunately), dropped it into a ‘customise’ site, added my text and, hey presto, cards for half the price. Not sure if they actually do say who I am as a writer, but I like them.


So far, I’ve handed out a grand total of one.

Does anyone else use business cards? Do you think they’re useful, or do they just take up space in your wallet?

NaNoWriMo is a No Go

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a non-profit movement that began in San Francisco in 1999. Anyone can take part. You sign up online, buddy up with other writers for support, receive pep talks and track your progress for four weeks while you bash out 50,000 words towards a novel. Last year, 341,375 participants signed up. Books like Hugh Howey’s Wool, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus came out of NaNoWriMo. It’s a good idea, and obviously popular, but it isn’t for me.
I did try something similar a couple of years ago, when I signed up for Book In A Month (BIAM) with Romance Writers of Australia. If I remember rightly, you choose your own goal for that. I was part way through a manuscript and opted for 50K, to finish it.
I did it, but it turned out that 50k in four weeks is too ambitious for me, because a fair amount of what I wrote was rubbish. Also, I was so focused on reaching my weekly goals – published online so everyone could see them – that I overdid it and gave myself a crippling, week-long stress headache. Ego can be a terrible thing.
I write historical fiction, so I’m always stopping to look something up. Would they have used that word in the 1830s? How much was a domestic servant paid then? When was that church/courthouse/wharf built? How did they treat ringworm? What were false teeth made from? What were the legal ramifications of performing an abortion? The research is never ending and it invariably slows me down. But it’s always fun.
These days I stick to putting moderate pressure on myself in private. After 14 books, I know I can write 1,800 good words per day, including looking-stuff-up time. This only goes smoothly, however, if I have the whole day in my office, and don’t get interrupted by things like life.
But I am always interrupted – usually by edits for the book I’ve just finished, which can take four to five weeks to go through, by the time I’ve looked at both the content edit and the line edit.
At the moment, my books are around 135k words long. I set up a spread sheet with my weekly targets and my deadline. Every day I enter my word count and watch the line on my little graph go up. By the time I’ve finished I’ve spent about five months writing, plus a month at the end on revisions and fiddling, plus a month or more dealing with interruptions. In total, it takes me roughly seven calendar months to produce a manuscript.
And then I pat myself on the back.

Why writers should join writers’ groups

Contrary to what I suspect might be popular opinion, writing books is not a particularly easy job. Barbara Cartland aside, for most writers it does not involve reclining on a chaise in a pink hat drinking tea, eating chocolates and dictating your 700th bestselling novel.

For most writers, it’s more a matter of slogging it out in front of a computer for months, depending on the length of the book, then turning around and re-writing what you’ve just written at least once, followed by a protracted editing process, then what could be a substantial wait until the book hits the shelves. And that’s only if you’ve secured a contract. For self-published writers, the writing is only half the job – the other half is marketing like mad to ensure readers know you have a book up for sale and where to find it.

While you’re doing all this – whether you’re self-published or traditionally published – there isn’t a lot of time to do much else, which not only makes writing a demanding job, but quite a lonely one. Which, in my opinion, is why writers should join writers’ groups. Also, and very importantly, only another writer will understand when you say, ‘I feel my climax isn’t strong enough, and I think my middle’s sagging as well.’

I find it difficult to talk to non-writers about my job. I never know what to say. Maybe non-writers don’t know what to say, either. I’m often asked, ‘Would I have read anything you’ve written?’ Truly, how do I know what other people have read? It’s a hard question to answer. Sometimes, it’s just a blunt, ‘I haven’t heard of you.’ Haven’t you? Well, that must mean I don’t exist. I’m also frequently asked, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I can’t answer this, either, because I don’t know. I see or read something, a moving picture appears in my head, sort of like a film, and there’s the core of my next book. On the few occasions I’ve actually said this, I’ve just got odd looks.

Talking to writers is so much easier. They’ve been there. They are there. Not talking to other writers for an extended period of time is like mentally starving to death.

When I moved from New Zealand to Newcastle in 2010 with a contract with HarperCollins Publishers for a series of historical novels set in Australia, I expected to lock myself in my office and stay there until all four were written. I joined RWA to keep myself in the Australian ‘loop’, and soon received an email from Sandie Hudson inviting me to attend a meeting of Hunter Romance Writers. What the hell, I thought, I’m not really a romance writer but I’m going mad sitting here by myself, so I went.

It’s possibly the best thing I’ve done since moving to Australia.

Ideally, a good writers’ group should provide its members with friendship, practical and emotional support, motivation and encouragement, shared skills and knowledge of craft, and new ideas. I get all of that from HRW. Who cares if I don’t write traditional romance? HRW members write YA (speculative, sci/fi and fantasy), non-fiction, paranormal, urban fantasy, category, rural, romantic suspense, contemporary, erotic, futuristic, and of course historical, most of which has varying degrees of romantic content (except perhaps the YA). It isn’t as though I don’t fit in.

We meet once a month and set writing goals, critique one another’s work, brainstorm stubborn plots, have mini workshops, and discuss specific writing issues members might be having. Everyone has some specific skill, level of experience and industry contacts they bring to the table. Last year, with the help of a group grant from RWA, we held an outstanding one day workshop on self-publishing presented by Cathleen Ross. We also have a loop, which keeps us in touch between meetings. This exchange of ideas and support is invaluable, and you just can’t get it outside of the writing community.

We laugh a lot, too. Best of all, we can relax. Everyone understands the language, challenges, frustrations and thrills of writing. Occasionally we’ll disagree about something, but that’s OK. We all understand that not everyone is going to see things the same way. Imagine if they did. How boring. Anyway, what works for one person’s writing may not work for someone else’s.

So the next time you’re sitting in front of your computer feeling lonely, bored or stuck, consider joining a writers’ group. It might be the best thing you ever do.