A New Literary Challenge for 2017

In 2013, I challenged myself to write one short story each month, format it for Kindle, create a beautiful cover image, and make it available to readers for 99 cents a pop. It was a fun year that stretched me and, in the end, resulted in one of those stories (“This Elegant Ruin”) being a finalist for the Saturday Evening Post‘s 2014 Great American Fiction Contest, and in the beautiful printed collection which you see on the side bar and on my Books page.

What was great about that venture is that it was completely self-directed and completely within my control. I would succeed or not succeed commensurate with my own effort and I could do everything on my own timetable.

In my writing life now, I do a lot of waiting. The submission process is out of my direct control and there is nothing I can to do speed it up. I know this, but the knowing doesn’t make it any easier to sit and wait. So I continue to write more novels in the meantime, working hard to have options should the first attempt to sell not pan out. But novels are gargantuan projects. And when they are done, they’re just going to get into line to wait behind the rest of their long-form kin.

So I’ve decided it’s time for another personal challenge that I can complete all by myself. This year I will be focusing on poetry, both writing new poems and gathering and editing old ones for a chapbook which I’ll produce myself. I believe I’ll organize it around the four seasons, since so many of my poems reflect themes of nature and the passage of time. I may intersperse some line drawings in there as well. My goal will be to have it completed and ready for purchase in late November. Chapbooks make great stocking stuffers, after all.

Celebrating Five Years of Gut Check Press

Recently my husband, author Zachary Bartels, and our good friend (and Zach’s indie publishing business partner) Ted Kluck realized that their micro press, Gut Check Press, was turning five years old. This seemed to call for some intensive reminiscing and, in true Zach fashion, a cheeky video retrospective created in PowerPoint.

The past five years of developing books and white papers (and the new podcast!), eating deep dish pizza and Chinese food, and smoking untold numbers of cigars have been some of the most fun and rewarding years of our lives as Ted, Kristin, Zach, and I grow closer as friends and share nights of the kind of laughter that makes your face hurt and your eyes tear up. And sometimes there’s even wheezing.

Here’s to the next five years of publishing milestones. 😉

How 12 Ordinary Photos Became 12 Eye-Catching Ebook Covers

Over this past year, a few different people have asked me about the covers I’m creating for the short stories I’ve written. Some have wondered how I create them. It occurred to me that it might be fun to show you all the original photos I started with and the finished covers side by side so you can see how I decided what to keep, what to chop, and what to change in order to make a photo into a cover. This is going to end up a pretty long post, but I hope a pretty interesting one as well.

If I had been really smart, I would have tracked all of the changes I made to the photos so I could tell you exactly how to achieve particular effects in Photoshop. Alas, I did not do so. But messing around in Photoshop and seeing what you come up with is half the fun anyway. I didn’t really know what I was doing in several of these, so if I can end up with something compelling, so can you, even if you’re a newbie. (Also, it helps to have a husband who actually does know what he’s doing and can answer all my questions.)

Without further ado…

Beneath the Winter Weeds

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Super simple because I started with a great photo. Crop, sharpen, layer one effect (don’t remember which!), and add text. You’ll see I kept the same fonts on every cover in order to give everything a family look, despite all the different colors and images.

The Door

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Another one I didn’t change much beyond cropping. You’ll note that in all of these, I selected colors that were in the photo as the colors for the text. That’s one of the simplest ways to create more cohesion in a cover. If you choose colors form a chart, you’re going to get things that aren’t quite matches. Use the eye-dropper tool to select colors that are already in your photo to then color your text. Also, watch out for high contrast photos where it’s hard to find enough room to put a title that will be readable. In this photo, it was hard to find a spot for the already very short title where I could have it all one font color and yet still readable. I think I was pushing it on this one. “The” is very easy to read, while “Door” is a bit harder.

This Elegant Ruin

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I hadn’t planned on putting my model on the cover at all–I only wanted to have the violin in the proper playing position. But Corissa had such an enigmatic look in her eye and I love this girl’s hair. With some adjustments for lighting and a warming filter, the whole cover has a very warm, honey glow to it. I smudged the background to create that rounded light (rather than have the straight windowsill) and created the illusion of movement on the bow using the same tactic. I remember having trouble placing the words, and even changed the title from its original (An Elegant Ruin) to achieve the right balance for the words. I then played with triangles in placement. There are three triangle shapes in this cover. Also, notice how much of the photo I didn’t use. Cropping is absolutely the most basic and effective way to turn a mediocre photo into a good one.

Also, this was one of only two photos I actually took after writing the story, for the purpose of a cover image. All the rest were photos I already had, some of them many years old.

We Shall Sometime Come to Someplace

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I loved this rabbit. Problem was, the rabbit in the story is a wild one, not a gray domestic one. Wild rabbits are brown. This took a LOT of tries to get the right brown for the rabbit and the right brown for the background and those two layers were manipulated separately first, then together. It was hard to keep this from becoming just too dark.

Clean

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Look how dark and crooked that original is! I did so much to this photo, I can’t even begin to tell you how I did it. Lots of strategic lighting adjustments, layer by layer, bit by bit. This was the other cover for which I asked a girl from church to model after I wrote the story. Elise didn’t bat an eye about getting in that dryer in full view of a number of people washing their clothes at the laundromat.

One Endless Summer Day

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I knew I needed a ladybug for this. But she couldn’t be on a rock. I knew I needed a green plant for this. But it couldn’t be boring. So out came the lasso tool and a lot of patience, twisting and turning and shrinking and shadowing so it would look semi-real. I like the way it turned out in the end.

10 Degrees Cooler in the Shade

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This was an image/title pair that preceded the story and I wrote the story to fit it. Not a lot of edits on the image. It was already quite eye-catching.

The Astonishing Moment

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This may be the image that was worked over the most. When you see the original and final side by side it may not even see like the same photo. The cover image was cropped from the left side (see the lighter almost vertical line between the clouds?) and then I used several different artistic filters to make it look more illustrated, which fits with a bit in the story (although I didn’t realize it until I wrote this post). See the Mackinac Bridge in the distance in the original? Don’t let that fool you. The story actually takes place on Lake Superior.

The Beginning and the End

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Cropped, flipped, brightened, and a little fun with the text. Not much more to say, except that this was one of the first images I shot with my macro lens when I got it.

Drive

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This image was obviously cropped and brightened and I upped the color saturation. I also used an artistic effect (perhaps watercolor?). I didn’t have to blur it to make it look like there was movement down the road as I took this from the passenger seat one day when we were driving Up North.

Memory Man

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This photo of the undergirding of a train bridge over the Lansing River Trail also serves as the basis of the background on my husband’s website. I needed something urban looking, but didn’t want the graffiti to compete with the words on the cover, so I rotated the photo 90 degrees and cropped out my cover image from what is really the top of the original photo (note the dark strip of rivets to orient your brain). Then I enhanced the colors, brightened, increased contrast, and added effects to make it less photoreal and more like a painting. I put the words vertical because of all the dark rust and even dropped an article because it didn’t really fit the design (it used to be called The Memory Man). A real graphic designer could have made it work, I’m sure. I also removed distracting dots of rust from beneath the words so that the title and author name can be easily read.

Water & Light

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Lastly, another very simple one. Just a matter of cropping, brightening, and placing text. This one I haven’t written yet, haven’t started at all, and have barely thought about. It may or may not end up with some subtle tie to Christmas since it will be coming out in December. The title simply came from the building that is featured in the photo (and may or may not have anything to do with the eventual story), which is the Lansing Board of Water and Light building downtown. Built in the 1930s, it is a gorgeous place with Art Deco lines and stirring murals on the lobby walls. Modern public buildings just don’t compare. Anyway, we’ll see what story I can come up with to fit the cover and title.

And that makes twelve. Twelve photos, twelve covers, twelve stories. I’m busy working on Memory Man right now. This has been such a fun year-long experiment. I highly recommend you try it if you’re struggling with consistent writing. As you write you will hone your skills and short stories are far easier to finish than novels, thus giving you that satisfying feeling of typing out the last sentence far more often. We’re getting close to the end of the year. It may be time to start thinking up some writing goals for 2014…

Writers: Some Advice on When You Should Give Up

I was reading an article Monday about a couple that both wrote novels and decided to self-publish. Good for them, I thought. It seemed from the beginning of the article that they were just looking for an outlet for their creativity. But then I came across this quote about why they decided to self-publish instead of look for a traditional publishing contract:

“It was disappointing,” she said. “How long do you decide to torture yourself with getting rejected by every publisher in the business before you decide to say you know what, my story’s good enough that it doesn’t really need the approval of a bunch of business people?”

But how many agents and publishers had they queried? Ten each. Ten.

Ten is “every publisher in the business?” No. No it is not. Despite the Big Five, there are still hundreds of publishers and there are thousands of agents.

The couple says that the reason they didn’t have the patience to wait out more rejection in hopes of finding someone who would champion their book is because of their age. Are both in their 80s? Nope! Both are in their 40s.

That’s fine. I may disagree that their age precludes patience (and I’m starting the home stretch toward 40 myself) but of course anyone who wants to can go it alone, and it’s a great choice for a lot of people. I’m self-pubbing short stories every month, so who am I to criticize? And their genres (sci-fi and fantasy) tend to do better in ebooks than many others. But here’s the hard reality: between the two of them, they’ve sold about fifty copies.

This is what traditional publishers (those “bunch of business people”) can generally guarantee: you will sell more than a few dozen copies. You may not be the next bestseller, but you will sell more because your book will be more visible. It will be in physical bookstores, which, yes, people still shop in. It will be sent out for reviews (these authors had to pay Kirkus to review their books). It will get professional editing and proofreading (I haven’t read either book, but a “look inside” one of them on Amazon reveals fourteen en-dashes that should be em-dashes [or commas or sentence breaks] and a distracting slew of ellipses on just the first couple pages).

Those “business people” aren’t sitting in a huge conference room somewhere, gleefully rubbing their hands together and sending out rejections because they don’t “approve” of a story. They love books. They love helping authors improve their books. They love seeing books get into the hands of eager readers. They love their authors (despite what some online rants from bitter authors would have us think) because their authors are the ones who make the whole business possible. Without stories, there’s no business.

I’m glad that these two are putting their books out there. I hope they sell a ton of them and it sounds like both are working on their next novels. They are doing it as a creative outlet. Maybe they don’t care about sales or paychecks from it since it is not their primary employment. And that’s just fine.

But I don’t want anyone to read their rationale, that ten “business people” didn’t respond positively, and think that if you didn’t get a contract after ten queries that there’s no point in querying more. Or that the people who work in the publishing business are heartless or just out to make a buck.

Everyone–everyone–I know in the business (hundreds and hundreds of people) are in the business because they love to read, love to write, and think a good book is its own reward. They simply love good storytelling and they want every book to reach as many readers as possible because they want an author to be read.

Maybe at the tip-top of the Big Five there are some full-on “business people” who are only in it for a fat paycheck. There are the Rupert Murdochs of the world, naturally. But for every one of them, there are thousands of agents, editors, marketers, publicists, and production people who are in it for the love of a good story. They are not a gauntlet of stick-wielding sadists who are looking to pummel an author with rejection. They are an army of supporters who want an author to bring his or her very best to the world.

Thing is, you don’t generally get published by asking just ten people to look at your work. It does take time and tenacity. So many great stories go unread simply because their authors gave up too quickly when faced with the fact that they might not be the next big thing right out of the gate.

Full disclosure here: For my first novel, I have queried 117 agents. Agents I’ve researched. Agents who I know rep my sort of story. Agents who have said they are looking for new clients. Today, one of those agents (number 113) is presenting my proposal to her partners. Together they will come to consensus on whether or not to take me on as a client. If it happens, I’ll be very happy that that particular leg of the journey toward publication is complete. But I’ll also know that it’s not over because then my agent will have to convince a publisher to take on my novel.

If it doesn’t happen, I’ll be disappointed. But then I will start researching more agents who might be a good fit for me and my writing. Or perhaps I’ll self-publish (after getting a professional edit on my own dime) and move on to the next novel, which might strike a chord with an agent where the last one didn’t. Who knows.

The point is, I believe in the publishing industry and I still see value in it. Maybe it’s because I have an inside track on it (I work for a traditional publisher). I love a lot of aspects of self-publishing and it is the right route for certain people and certain projects. But it’s not right if you’re just doing it because you’re impatient. Rejection isn’t just part of the game, it’s an essential part. Because it should make you a better writer.

Had I self-pubbed after I got my first ten “no thanks” responses to my query I would have published a book that wasn’t ready, that was inferior to the book it is now in more than one way. If these two authors had queried agents who rep their genre and were looking for new clients, the rejections they received should have been the first clue that there was something in their writing that needed improvement.

From my 117 queries, I received 11 very helpful rejections and one specific request for revision and resubmission. That’s 10% who read at least a portion of the manuscript and had a lot of positive things to say about it, yet had reservations for a variety of reasons. One of those rejections was a hard one to take because it had a lot of criticism in it. But even that one, when I had let it settle in, contained helpful revision advice.

My manuscript is far stronger now than it was when I sent my first query to an agent in early April of 2012. Yep, that’s nearly a year and a half ago.

So what’s my advice on when you should give up on your dreams? Never. Even some of the greats were told at various times by various people that they lacked talent, their stories were uninteresting or unmarketable, and that they should pursue another line of work. Keep working, keep improving, keep trying.

And for goodness sake, have the humility the learn something from those “business people” in publishing.

Oh, and you don’t have to take my word on all this. Turns out agent Rachelle Gardner was thinking about some of the same things this week!

New Short Story Release + Something for Free

I’m happy to tell you that February’s short story, The Door, is now available on Amazon. Click here to preview and purchase this slipstream story for Kindle. Just $0.99.

The Door
As before, here is a very short excerpt to give you a flavor of the writing.

Wesley laid the canvas aside, sat on his stool, and stared blankly at the wall for a long time. As he sat, the weak February light moved slowly through the room as the day progressed until finally it rested upon the wall in such a way as to suggest a door where there was none. Something in Wesley clicked.

And why not? Why not a door?

In addition, for one day only I will be putting Beneath the Winter Weeds on sale. On Valentine’s Day (February 14th starting at 12 AM Pacific Standard Time for all you lovely international readers who may not celebrate this silly holiday) you can click here and download January’s short story absolutely free! It will only be free for 24 hours, so snap it up while the getting is good.

New Release: Beneath the Winter Weeds Now Available!

It gives me great pleasure to announce that today is the day! You can now buy the first short story of 2013, Beneath the Winter Weeds, for your Kindle. It’s just $0.99 and you can download it here. I believe non-US Kindle users may have to wait a day or so more before it is available for purchase in other territories.

Beneath the Winter Weeds Final Cover

I would like to ask those of you who read it to post a review on Amazon. I’d appreciate it so very much. If you’re a non-US reader, I’d love it if you could let me know when it is available to you. And if you run into any formatting problems on Kindle, please let me know in the comments here so I can address them. Thanks, everyone!

To give you a flavor of the writing, here is a short excerpt…

Instinct drove her on from one end. Knowing what lay beyond the ravine, somewhere beneath the ground, drew her ever closer from the other. Like a drop of rain upon a long blade of wild grass, she was inching ever closer to the root of it all. And when she at last came to the ravine and began a careful descent on the frozen ground, she had a palpable sense of acceleration, of reaching the point of no return.

And what’s coming down the line in February? A story about a painter and one very curious painting…

Introducing Understory Press

I realized as I was formatting Beneath the Winter Weeds for Kindle that I really ought to have a publishing imprint of my own to put on the title page and the back cover of the whole collection at the end of the year (as well as my novel) because I plan on making those longer books available in paperback as well.

After a quite a bit of thought on Saturday morning, I decided to call it Understory Press.

Understory Press

The logo is my own concept and design (largely drawn at the mall bounce house on Saturday while my son ran wild with about 100 other children). Wondering about the name? Here’s my explanation…

Most of the trees that make up a forest are towering giants that form the canopy. But beneath those behemoths is the understory. Slender and subtle, these graceful trees use fewer resources, but they also put forth spectacular shows of spring blossoms and provide fruit for wildlife in the fall.

Understory Press is like one of those trees. We’re small in size, committed to subtle and compelling storytelling, and occasionally we may surprise you with something spectacular.

As I was developing the logo and the name, I was reminded that Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf were self-published authors. They both wrote, revised, and edited their work, then Leonard set the type and printed the pages with Virginia’s help (and later with the help of some employees) at their Hogarth Press. Virginia’s sister Vanessa designed Virginia’s book covers. And this was not strange to people at the time.

It got me thinking about how self-publishing used to be respectable, then it was derided as what people do when they aren’t talented enough for “real” publishing, and now it’s coming back around. I’m really excited to start down this self-publishing road and I hope you will enjoy my creative endeavors as well. Understory Press is strictly a vanity press at the moment, but who knows what the future may bring…

An Ambitious Writing Plan for 2013

Edison's LightbulbIt seems to me that there is quite a push to get writers to believe they can write a novel in a month. NaNoWriMo, blog posts, books. If you’re a full time writer or someone with an already thoroughly sketched out or outlined idea, I think that is true. Or maybe if you just type ultra fast. But I don’t think I’m among your ranks.

I have my own fairly ambitious writing plan for this year, however. In May or June I plan to release a novel. But that’s not the real ambitious part (because it’s already written). By the end of 2013 I would like to have a collection of short stories to put into book form. And I would like to release them throughout the year as Kindle Singles, little ebooks for $0.99 each. And I would like to do this once a month.

To think I can pull this off strikes me as ambitious, but not quite foolhardy. So I plan to break up each month of 2013 in such a way that I can write, revise, edit, format, and release a short story into the cybersphere regularly, like the slow drip of an IV.

How will I accomplish this? I believe it may work out this way:

  • Weeks 1 & 2 – Write
  • Week 3 – Revise and edit
  • Week 4 – Format and release

This seems reasonable to me at the moment, in the glow of a fresh new year. We shall see as we go, I suppose, if it is in reality. I already have ten stories partially imagined or scribbled about in my notebook. One of the stories that will be in the collection is already written, though I cannot release that one until after a particular contest is finished in March. So I will save the release of that one to be my one cheat, my back-up in case of a bad or very busy month.

Does this strike you as a little naïve? Am I fooling myself here? Perhaps. But you can’t fail or succeed until you try.

What are your writing goals for 2013? I’d love to hear about them.