Authors and Book Covers

One of the biggest moments an author has waiting for a book to be released is seeing the cover for the first time.  Part of it may simply be that at that moment, publication seems real.  It’s the first step toward holding the actual, physical book in your hand.  It’s also the moment when the world a writer has been imagining for so long suddenly takes on a real, physical appearance.  And maybe that’s why authors often have mixed feelings about their covers, beyond the esthetics of what is and isn’t attractive.  This is the point where someone else begins interpreting their vision.

Every reader, of course, creates a different world in their imagination as they interact with a book, perhaps seeing themselves as the protagonist, using details from their own lives and what is familiar to them when imagining a setting, and that will just as obviously be very different from what the writer has seen so clearly all this time.  The cover, however, is such a significant interpretation, one that influences how the reader will begin to imagine these people and this place before they even see the author’s words, that it’s no wonder authors have such strong feelings about them, can even feel violated if the cover turns out not to be entirely what they had in mind.

When my first novel, Without Wings, was published, I was able to make arrangements for one of my students to submit a design that was ultimately accepted.  We discussed some details.   I’ve always loved wrapped covers, where an image begins on the front and continues to the back, and we agreed that watercolors, her favorite medium, would be appropriate for a painting she would complete that would be the basic design for the cover. She was also familiar with the premise of the book and its primary themes. Beyond that, I said nothing else.  I wanted her to have an opportunity to create her own vision.

A couple weeks later, when she showed me the design, I was utterly speechless.  In fact I was so quiet, my student was afraid I was disappointed in her work.  What she had prepared was, of course, different from the way I had imagined the cover myself.   Like most writers, I think, I’d begun to develop an impression about what that should be before the manuscript was even complete.  Still, her design seemed so utterly perfect, even down to the soft kinds of colors I prefer and a rural landscape that was so reminiscent of my own house and property, I felt as though my student had somehow entered my mind.

When I was working on The Tapestry Baby, a novel that is just now on the verge of being released, I began thinking about a cover very early in my writing.  I knew what my title would be from the very start, and the notion of what a tapestry baby could be evoked all kinds of visual images as I wrote.  Once more I imagined a cover done in watercolors with blues and greens, the shades dearest to me, as it primary colors. They would be swirled together, with a faint image of a baby in the background, staring out through the colors.  This image became so firmly ingrained in my mind, I was prepared to be disappointed when I saw the real cover.

This week I received an e-mail with my cover design.  While it is, of course, completely different from the way I imagined it, once more, like my first novel, it seems to me absolutely perfect.  Standing in my kitchen and looking at the image for the first time on my cell phone,  I found myself shouting over and over again, “It’s gorgeous,” even though no one was with me to see it.  And the cover is.  Esthetically it is simply a beautiful design, with lovely, subtle colors, and full of so much detail, down to the wrinkles on the baby’s wrists.  While everything about the cover is so different from the way I had imagined it, once more I felt as though the artist, this time a woman I had never met, had entered my imagination. Taking the shadows from leaves, a detail that is connected to an especially important scene in the novel, and using them to create a subtle tapestry background, then putting a very real-looking baby at the bottom, combines images from the book in a way that just seems right. I haven’t been able to stop looking at it.  So here it is, the perfect cover!







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Travel Writing

I love traveling and I love writing.  People have often asked me why I don’t put the two together, though I do in many ways.  Place has become much more significant in my work over the years and more and more I’ve found myself inspired by the places I’ve visited, coming home filled with ideas and an overwhelming desire to write.

I suppose it makes sense. Traveling, like writing, is largely the act of observing, taking note of interesting details and trying to put them in some kind of perspective.  I just returned from a trip to Switzerland, and perhaps it was because the galleys for my new novel arrived the day before and I had taken them along to proofread during the trip that this time I felt not just like a traveler, but a writer who was traveling.

One of the places I visited was Zermatt, a charming town full of historic wooden houses and a church that chimes every quarter hour with a tune that sounds like the first three notes of “Three Blind Mice.”  Outside is a cemetery that includes the graves of people who died in mountaineering accidents, including attempts at climbing the Matterhorn. The grave markers for these individuals often have pieces of equipment attached to them, such as ice axes, and generally specify which peak they lost their lives on.  I was especially touched by those whose accidents occurred on a descent rather than an ascent.  This detail was often included on the stone, an attempt by family members to show that even in the shadow of a terrible loss, their loved one had made one final significant accomplishment only shortly before, and should be remembered for this, too.

Perhaps one of the reasons I feel so compelled to write about Zermatt is that I had a previous visit there, only a short time ago.  This past July, I spent several days there hiking the mountains, struck by the incredible beauty of the glaciers and the Matterhorn that appears to almost follow you from peak to peak.  No matter where you are, the snow capped peak of the Matterhorn always seems to be just around the corner.  In the summer there was the wonderful contrast of the snow in the not so far distance and the blue lakes and hillsides covered with wildflowers.  Because of its altitude, with so much above the tree line, and the glacier created valleys that appeared almost like rivers of stone, its natural beauty was bleak at times, and harsh, a reminder of why there were so many graves outside that church.

Riding the cable car to the summit, where skiing is possible year round, I walked first through a tunnel that included a line of gurneys used to carry off the injured and then walked out into a wind that, combined with the high elevation, literally took my breath away.  As I stood there for a moment allowing my body to acclimate, I wondered how anyone could ski in such a fierce area in the middle of winter and tolerate the winds in such open terrain.

With those thoughts, I’m not sure why, almost as soon as I returned home,  I started making plans for a spring ski trip.  Maybe it was just the understanding that in a place where skiing is possible in the summer, it’s bound to be superb in season, which it truly was.  But it was also enticing to see a place that I had some familiarity with in a whole new way, and I was struck by how different the mountain looked in winter than it did in summer.  Instead of the increased harshness that I expected, the coating of snow seemed to mellow the mountains, taking away the sharper edges.  The sound of people everywhere enjoying themselves and, fortunately during the week I was there, non-stop clear skies and sunshine, made the winter mountains seem more peaceful rather than more foreboding.

Everywhere I looked, I kept making comparisons, trying to  locate the hiking trails I had walked on before, seeing the same little villages near the bottom, but seeing them in different ways, with their coating of snow and skiers everywhere, basking in the sun.  Everywhere I looked, I would see both versions, as though they existed superimposed on each other. It made everything seem alive, yet familiar, a place that I knew in more than one light.  And perhaps because of that familiarity, I began developing a sense of ownership, that this was a place I knew and one where I therefore belonged.

Maybe that’s part of the appeal of travel writing, that the places we experience are vibrant and ever changing, that no two people will ever see the same places in the same way, or even the same person on two different days.  The details we make note of and use to define a location become part of us, add to our own significance.  Being able to describe  a place and to attach meaning to those details may simply be a way of claiming a location,  or even conquering it.

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The Joys of Publishing “Small”

When most people talk to me about publication, they have a tendency to think big–something book-length published by one of the major houses.  In fact I’m surprised how often people who have never had work published before, and in some cases haven’t really done much writing, think in terms of books whenever they start.  In my classes, I try to get my students to think small–local papers, more accessible literary magazines, publications geared toward student work.  In doing this, they are not only increasing their opportunities at getting published and building a track record,  but also have an opportunity to experience the unique and personal approach smaller publications can offer.

Beth Baxter, publisher of the Focus, a small monthly tabloid in Western Pennsylvania that focuses  on good news from the local community, visited my class this week and talked about the experience of editing a small paper and how such a publication can provide a learning experience for new writers.  Based in a rural area where there isn’t a daily or even weekly traditional newspaper, Beth said part of her motivation to cover only positive news was that the larger daily newspapers in surrounding towns and cities generally covered news in her community only if it was negative–someone arrested as part of a drug ring or  a car accident with injuries.  The positive side of a community she clear cares about ended up being lost.

In covering stories such as a boy scout completing a project to get  his merit badge or a feature about a person with an interesting collection, she’s able to provide a more positive look at the local area.  Students, listening to her, appeared interested, probably thinking about the easy outlet this would provide for building up clips and a portfolio. Like most small publications which often have a staff of one or two people doing everything from writing to proofing to layout and design, Beth has more story ideas on her desk than she has time to write about them and is more than happy to work with new writers–even those with no previous journalism experience.   Pay, she emphasized, is nominal.  The real reward is the publication and the experience of meeting some fascinating people.

And yes, that latter reward is far greater than someone who has never done this kind of work can ever imagine.  When I’ve taught journalism classes, I’ve always regretted that the one part of the experience that can’t be duplicated in the classroom is the experience of meeting such a wide variety of people and the emotional side of what it’s like to share their stories.  Beth talked about a woman she interviewed who had a button collection, some even dating back to the Civil War.  The fascinating part of the story, she found, was when she interviewed the woman about the collection.  Each button had a significant history.   The woman would pull one out of the jar and begin telling its story.

I began my writing career working for a small town daily newspaper called The Latrobe Bulletin. The emphasis was always on local news– a school board meeting may get more coverage than a major national event–and a good feature was always welcome on the front page.  One of my most memorable experiences was  interviewing a local man who flew hot air balloons.   I flew with him one morning and conducted the interview in the balloon.  Hot air ballooning was not very common at the time and as we flew over a major highway in the area, people pulled off the road and got out of their cars to watch us fly over their heads.  Sounds travel upwards and conversations on the ground could often be heard very clearly in the balloon. I remember him telling me that he especially liked flying over wealthy neighborhoods so that he could hear what the rich people had to say while they were sitting next to their pools.

The story provided some wonderful photographic opportunities, including a shot where our photographer was able to go inside and take picture of the balloon while it was being inflated.  Our editor enjoyed the story and pictures so much that he simply moved all other news to other pages and gave us the entire front page.  Only a small-town newspaper would have the luxury of doing that.

Some of my students have already started writing for locals.  One showed me a story she did about a pep-rally for pre-schoolers just before the Steelers headed off to the Super Bowl and another  visited a local animal refuge that cares for larger, exotic animals.  Both shared pictures and stories about the experience of writing the story with me and seemed as excited about the process of covering the story as having the opportunity to publish.

Most of my students, I suspect, are still thinking big, using the experience the locals offer to gain experience and move on.  And that’s perfectly fine.  But Beth, who has years of experience working in journalism and public relations, is proof that smaller is no less significant.  Her paper provides an invaluable service to a local community, noting contributions and accomplishments and making people feel good about where they live.  She made it clear there isn’t anything else she would rather do.

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An editor’s advice to a young writer

Several weeks ago when Elizabeth Burton of Zumaya Books and I were working on the final edits of my novel, I commented on how interesting the process was and what a good experience this would be for my creative writing students.  Liz generously offered to make a cyber visit to my classroom and offer comments on the beginning chapter of a fantasy novel called Ruination written by Justin Johnson, a student in my Writing for Publication class. The session provided a fascinating look into the way an editor thinks and resulted in some wonderful advice for writers in general.

When Liz first agreed to visit, she asked for three chapters or 50 pages, her general submission requirements.  She explained that she likes to look at this much work because writers often begin their novels in the wrong place–the best beginning may well be later in the novel, further into the action.

The editing session was organized through Google documents  so that my class could watch live-editing and Justin and I could chat with Liz through a window that opened on the side.  Students watched on a screen in front of the room or on their own laptops.

Liz offered advice that ranged from thinking in terms of the character at all times to making the writing itself more effective.  Writing should be descriptive, but never bogged down with too many details.  Liz commented, “Essentially, never include anymore than is absolutely necessary to keep the action going.”  Readers, she noted, don’t always like character descriptions–just hints so they can fill in the blanks.

She offered similar advice for keeping the story moving.  Start with action and stay with it, she advised.  “Wordy,” she cautioned, “always waters down the drama.” Keeping description simple, she pointed out, can be more powerful than using a lot of words.

Another point of advice–be selective about how much information you give in a single dose.  “Maintain point of view,” she said, “by remembering you’re thinking like your character.  Beware of doing info dumps where they aren’t appropriate.”  Background can be worked in slowly.  There’s lots of time in novels. Keep character in mind at all times, even down to that basics of word choice.  A determined woman wouldn’t “find herself” somewhere, Liz noted.

Liz also gave suggestions for improving writing style.  “The one piece of common wisdom you can bank on is avoid -ly adverbs if possible.”  She also suggested never using “self” pronouns unless absolutely necessary.  A hole can’t fill itself up with anything; instead, it is filled.

Justin at one point jokingly commented, “I don’t like the English language anymore.”  Liz immediately responded, “Nobody does.  The others are so much easier because they’re purebreds.  English is a mutt.”

And while the editing process can be painstaking and sometimes frustrating, at the end of the session Justin also discovered one of the rewards–a series of compliments from Liz about his work in general and an offer to “talk.”

Justin described the session as being more informative than he ever could have imagined.  “It made me see my work in ways only an outsider looking in could have seen it,” he said.   He especially enjoyed Liz’s mixture of constructive criticism and humor.  “Overall,” Justin said, “this editing session practically tripled my college education.”

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How to Find Writing Markets

As a writer and a professor who teaches a class called Writing for Publication, I’ve become quite familiar with the variety of market guides available.  These are books that help writers find magazines, presses and websites that may be interested in publishing their work, and in some cases will walk a writer through the entire submission process.

The first book I always introduce my students to is The Writer’s Market published by Writer’s Digest Books.  This is a good general publication that is especially useful for non-fiction writers.  It has a very extensive listing of magazines that take free-lance submissions and these are organized by topic.  It also does a nice job of outlining the submission process, including sample query letters, manuscript format, etc.  While it does include listings for creative work, most of these are larger, more inaccessible markets for first-time authors.  My personal favorite of the Writer’s Digest Books is the Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, which includes listings for high-gloss magazines and major book publishers, but also includes a very nice range of literary magazines, small presses and web publications.  It also includes a list of agents who are open to newer writers.  There is an equivalent book for poets, called The Poet’s Market, as well as other specialized guides, such as one for children’s writing. Writer’s Market listings are also available by subscription through their website.

The most entertaining market guide may very well be The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses published by Dustbooks.  Unlike the Writer’s Market guides, this one does not include major publishers, but essentially begins with the best of the university literary magazines and small presses and works down from there.  While not categorized as neatly as the above guides (this one takes some paging through)  its listings are often entertaining themselves as editors specify what they do and don’t want.  This is a wonderful guide for locating specialized markets, such a women’s issues or gay rights.

The Council of Literary Magazines and Small Presses puts out a market guide listing submission guidelines for their members.  These are all small presses and literary magazines, but publications of excellent quality. At the recent AWP Conference, CLMP announced that their market guide will soon be available on-line.

Poets&Writers Magazine is an excellent source for book and magazine publishers looking for submissions and their website contains a searchable listing of publishers and agents and includes information on applying for graduate programs.

Links for the above-mentioned sources are listed below.  There are many other magazines and websites, of course, but these are a great place to begin.

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Just Returned from AWP

I just returned from the AWP (Associated Writing Programs) Conference where 7,000 writers converged on Washington DC for readings, sessions on writing and the teaching of writing, and one of the most extensive book fairs to be found anywhere.  The book fair is one of the most colorful events of the entire weekend, highlighting not only the creativity of a wide range of authors but also their ideas about what a book can be.  While most literary magazines appear to be embracing on-line forms of publication, having at least a web presence if not a full webzine, the conference also showed that the book arts are thriving, with some presses showcasing beautiful hand made chapbooks, publications that combine the art of writing with the art of book design. Some of these were extremely innovative. One was a book that could be unfolded telescope style allowing the “reader” to peer through a tiny hole and read a poem printed at the other end.  There was a also a book of fractured fairy tales, where pages were cut in quarters with a story on one side and an illustration on the other.  No matter how the pages were lined up, a different version of the story and illustration would appear.  The same press offered a page that could be folded in an intricate way so that it could be opened and re-opened to show various versions of the same story. There were a number of presses offering broadsheets, single pages on high-quality paper and hand-produced artwork featuring a single poem and books that were hand bound with hand-made papers.  In an age where so much is digital, its wonderful to see books that are a delight to see and touch as they are to read.

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