Finding a Cover to be Judged

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They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but as a writer you know that a cover is definitely important when trying to sell a book as it is usually the first thing a prospective reader sees.

One of the advantages of being an independent author is that you can have a big say in the cover of your book and so for The Price of Magic I once more used an illustrator I selected. For reasons I shan’t go into here the illustrator who did the cover for A Ghost Called Dog was unavailable, but I was able to keep it in the family with Matt Hutching’s following in his mother’s footprints and working on the latest book. I have no idea if there is a ‘right’ way to go about getting an illustration for a cover but this is what we did this time.

I started off by sending Matt a synopsis of the book along with some extracts about characters and locations as well as the cover from the first book because The Price of Magic is a sequel and I wanted them to share a feel.

I offered up the couple of ideas that I had, but although there were things rattling around my head I like to trust the illustrator’s skill when it comes to design. Once we had finished up our initial discussions Matt set to work and sent through seven drafts for me to take a look at, some of which you can see below:

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Typically, my favourites were not what I though the best suggestions were when I was making suggestions, which is why I try to give a decent brief and let the Illustrator work from there. You may notice that the draft on the right is the most similar to the final cover but there was still work to do.

Having consulted with a couple of people and made up my mind I went back and confirmed my favourite and what tweaks I thought were needed. Matt then went back to the drawing board (figuratively I suspect rather than literally but I couldn’t resist the turn of phrase) and the following hit my inbox.

I checked in with my usual people and Heidi the production controller from Troubador who had to keep everything to do with the production of TPOM rolling and cope with the slight mania I develop during the typeset – the response was universal in selecting option three which should look familiar to you.

The following bit is going to my favourite part of this post as I didn’t get to sit over Matt’s shoulder as he worked on the final cover and I am absolutely the kind of person who can get lost in those videos of someone creating something from scratch so despite being a writer, I’m going to let the graphics do the talking for a moment as the cover takes shape:

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And there you have it, from samples of writing to imagination to drafts to a cover. I am really happy out how things turned out and I have had several people say very nice things about the cover, which makes all the effort worth it.

Until next time, when I’ll let you in on some of the things I’ve been beavering away at behind the scenes but for now…

To all the things!

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Dreams with a Deadline – Process Over Outcome

I want to try something a little different this week before we get into the grind of the NFL regular season, which is why I am cross posting this across both my blogs, so if you’re not a sports fan please bear with me for a little bit as things will come around.

For the last few weeks I have been following the pre-season of three NFL teams and generally getting excited about the start of a new season. However, this is the weekend that as the final cuts are made, for some careers are ending and for others dreams.

As you watch Hard Knocks (for the general reader a series following an NFL team through training camp) the shift in focus goes from a team coming together to the tension that surrounds them as players start to get cut and the business of football really kicks in. Something like two percent of those who play college football make it to the NFL and the average career is a little over three years. The offseason roster goes from ninety to fifty-three this weekend, and whilst the practice squad has expanded over the last couple of years, when you look at those numbers multiplied over thirty-two teams with very few alternative outlets to play American football professionally there are a lot of people left hanging now.

Once the season starts we will start talking about players who are bad or good, but in reality you have to be pretty exceptional to even make it into a training camp, yet alone make a successful career of the sport of American football.

So what happens next? Some will hold on for a call once the injuries start, some will keep themselves fit and hope to try again next year, and some will have to walk away from their dream. Something they have worked very hard to achieve, with fine margins and no way to keep going.

Those who do not like sport will find such sacrifices hard to comprehend, even if they understand that for some this represents their best chance of making something out of their life. Even those of us who love to lift or run as amateurs struggle to truly understand the pressure that a large number of these players will have been going through. This isn’t just winning or losing; this is about putting food on the table for their families, a shot at something bigger than themselves, and chasing a goal with a deadline.

That deadline is the bit that can be truly terrifying. I remember in my twenties feeling a dread every time my birthday rolled around, looking at the things I had and hadn’t achieved and holding myself up against some idealised timetable. I’m a bit more relaxed about things these days, partly through having done things like publishing a book this year, and partly as I have come to understand that I have a restless nature. A couple of days ago a friend halted halfway through a sentence as they realised they were basically calling me crazy.

An NFL blog, writing books, an NFL podcast, a band, a pretty busy job – all the things as I like to say. I found it funny because I didn’t disagree, and they left out the lifting, the runs, the morning stretches and core work, the out of hours support, walks with my partner, the list goes on.

I have come to appreciate the trying of things, but whilst there are things that get sacrificed, I’m not in a position that I have had to sacrifice everything to pursue one goal. There’s some that will talk about how you can achieve anything if you pursue their dream. For some this is true, and I can see that it is offered as a genuine encouragement, but usually by people who have beaten the odds. If I can, then so can you. The problem is that, if you’re focussed on the result, then anything other than achieving that result, and it is all too easy to not get the most out of what you’re doing at the time. And if you sacrifice everything for one goal, then there’s a lot to pick up if that gamble doesn’t pay off.

That’s not to say goal setting isn’t important, or that you shouldn’t try to do what you love, but how you get there is kind of important. If this is sounding dangerously close to one of those life is a journey not a destination inspirational posters, then that’s because it is. So why am I bringing it up now? The answer is podcasts and how I got very lucky this week.

Podcasts feature heavy in this next section because of a discussion between Jonah Keri and Katie Nolan on Keri’s podcast. At the end of every episode Jonah Keri asks his guest for an inspiration thing that has helped his guest. It can be as serious or as silly as they like, and one of the themes that keeps cropping up is that if you love doing something, find a way to do it. Make the thing that you want to do, and you will get better at it and the success may or may not come, but do it for the love anyway.

The reason that these blogs exist are because as I got older, the idea of being a writer wouldn’t go away. I was not one of those children who had a clearly defined idea of what they wanted to do and pursued it through a specific path in education. I kept fiddling with stories and ideas, and then really started working on my writing as I got more serious about it.

The NFL blog started because I loved the NFL and I wanted to work on something that would help me with the mechanics of writing. The NFL would always be something to write about, I was following anyway and it was an extension of my love of the sport.

Along the way, I discovered what I love writing about in relation to football, read more, listened to more podcasts, watched more games. A self-perpetuating interest developed. Not only that, but I learned how to manage my writing time, when I could squeeze out extra words if I needed to, and in the process learnt how to write fiction in more focused bursts without waiting for inspiration.

I read about coaching, and developed my thoughts on this, stealing from Pete Carroll’s book about developing a philosophy, and borrowing the idea from great Bill Walsh that the score takes care of itself. I still haven’t distilled my philosophy down to a handy twenty-five word summary as Carroll asks, but I know the name.

Process Over Outcome.

The idea that you cannot control the outcomes of situation, but if you focus on making the process as good as possible, then you maximise the potential for things to go well.

I’m still working on selling my children’s book, I have a lot to learn. Mostly because I was focussed on making the book as good as I can through the editing and production process.

It is also important to not be afraid of making mistakes, you have to learn from them, but if you’re paralysed by the possibility of failing then you’re not focussing on the process and you might not even try.

The Wrong Football podcast started last season when my friend Dan came to me, and said he’d like to do a podcast with me, and my response was sure, but you have to produce it as I can find time to sit down and record but I’m too tied up with the site to do much more. I approached it like I do being in a band, I have to trust the other people to do their job, go with the best idea, it’s working in a collaborative creative process. Something I’m used to with music and something I have written before about on my writer’s blog.

Thanks to this process, on Friday night I got to shake the hands of a Super Bowl winner. In fact, a pretty significant one for me, because this wasn’t any old Super Bowl winner, but a member of the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears. The team that caused the surge of interest in American football in the UK in the mid 1980s, and pretty much the reason that I am fan of the game. Things come full circle. It was a great experience, certainly for Dan and I, who were very nervous to begin with as this was our first live interview for the pod, but we settled quickly enough because after all, we were talking football.

The interview should be coming in next week’s pod, and will be accompanied by a second interview another ex NFL player Nick Ferguson who was also a great guy, very happy to talk to us and evangelise over the game. It was a pretty incredible evening before we even got to the NFL event itself.

I’m very happy for the pod, and I hope the interviews come across well. I also look back on it, and I think to my own brief stints being interviewed about my book. I don’t see my purpose there as being a hard sell, I just try to be enthusiastic about what I have created. If I wasn’t enthusiastic then I wouldn’t have created it. You hope that your enthusiasm sparks something in others, at the end of the day isn’t that what we’re all hoping for.

The truth is though, that all of these things are interconnected. In a way, the play of Shaun Gayle led to me writing a book, and writing meant that I got to shake his hand. This interconnectedness is part of life, the complexity of the world that surrounds can be baffling, and sometimes it is nice to stare at a sports field and pretend it is as simple as winning and losing. However, once you start to study it the complexity soon picks up again.

I’ll soon be predicting games and writing about the league. I’ll also be working on a sequel to the published book, running, lifting, doing all the things. Following various dreams, trying to ignore the deadlines. Process over outcome. It’s worked for me so far.

A Book is Coming

A book is coming. In Fact, technically it already exists as a physical object, although somehow in a twist of fate, out of the various people actively involved in the project, I am the only one who has not seen a copy yet. Some have gone to the publishers to be issued to the UK copyright libraries, others have gone to the marketing company and our copies were delivered to my parents as they had the advantage of being in! I will see them soon, but let’s go back to how we got here first.

The last couple of months have been a bit of blur for me, so I shall spare myself and you an attempt at piecing together an exact timeline of what happened, but here is what did.

Having submitted my edited and proofed manuscript we set about the fun task of getting the book typeset and designed. I had been already talking to artists about an illustration for the cover, and having been given a helpful steer by my godmother I was put in contact with Rose Hutchings who after a telephone discussion agreed to do it. This was an interesting process for me as I had some compositional ideas about what I wanted to feature, but I had not considered anything like the emotional tone. After our discussion, and having been sent a copy of my redrafted manuscript, Rose produced a number of sketches for me and with a certain amount of canvassing of other people to check my opinions, I selected the one that would become our cover. Rose continued to work things up for me, tweaking near the end until I had the illustration that you see below:

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If I had some ideas about how I wanted the cover to look, I was slightly taken aback to find myself momentarily without an opinion about what I wanted for the actual layout. I love books as objects, and definitely have preferences for design, but hadn’t really thought about it much for my own project. So when Catherine very reasonably asked about things like font preferences, I was only able to offer up a liking for working in Palatine Linotype, which I hardly ever bother with as the first thing I have to do when submitting a manuscript is change the font to the usually requested Times New Roman. However, once Catherine and the people from 2QT started sending me some mock-ups of various design options and fonts, then preferences quickly came to the fore. After a conference round my parents dining table with various print-outs, and me grabbing my dad’s printing eye glass, we quickly settled on a font (for the record, Palatino was the first to be thrown out so as ever, I know nothing) and eventually we were able come up with a design layout.

We also had sent the final illustration from Rose to 2QT so the ever patient Charlotte Mouncey could turn this into a book jacket. I say jacket, as not only did she have to sort the front, but come up with the rest of the design and place the text of the blurb. This was something that I had tried to draft, working on the elevator pitch I had always used and with a word limit suggested by Ben Cameron who is doing the publicity campaign for the book. However, it turns out that people who run companies that do this sort of thing professionally are really good at doing things like writing blurbs and so when Catherine sent us a draft it was obvious what we should use that, so with a couple of tweaks it was set. After a couple of emails Charlotte then nailed the design of the whole jacket and the cover looks like this:

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So, just when I thought I was done with reading and checking. We got the final layout to check, and so one final read. This sent me back into another bout of editing frenzy but with a few final final edits we were done.

Things are in motion, and as I said, there are copies of my book in the world. It exists. It’s a thing. Now I just need to sell it. But people are reminding me to be proud, so for a moment I’ll allow that, in deference to Rachael, Dad, and Brooke.

It will be on to the next thing tomorrow.

Reality Hits – Editors and the Creative Process

If you have spent any time reading or looking at things about actual writing then you might quickly notice that the reality is not what is sold in books, TV, or film. Perfect prose does not slip easily from pen or keyboard, no matter how inspired you are, and there is a certain type of prolonged effort (some might even call it pig-headedness) that you have to embrace in order to reach the end of your first draft. And this is just the beginning.

In my last blog I wrote about finding a self-publishing company, which I am happy to say is 2QT up in the Yorkshire Dales. The manuscript has been sent off to their editor and this is where the fun begins.

There is a certain trepidation in showing your work to anyone, but for me there is also an excitement about working with an editor. I am lucky enough to be working with Karen Holmes who is an editor, copywriter, and author. She works with 2QT amongst others, and has certainly given me plenty to think about already.

I can’t claim to be an expert, but knowing how involved we writers are with our words, and how hard it is to both to get and take good criticism in any creative endeavour, I would imagine there is a certain level of trepidation for an editor when a new person’s book hits their desk. Sure there is a whole new book to explore, but is it any good and more importantly, will the author engage with the process? I won’t make any bold claims about the quality of my writing as my route into the craft does not have an academic underpinning, but I think I may have one advantage over some.

One of the many reasons that writing wormed its way into my life is that enables me to express things that are simply not possible from behind a drum kit, no matter how hard I tried. However, twenty years of being a musician has taught me a thing or two about the creative arts. I know how much work goes into producing seemingly effortless results and how to maintain that effort, but being a musician has also shown me with how to navigate a collaborative creative process. In the early days it can seem to some like every suggestion, every deviation from what you originally brought to the group, is a criticism or failure. However, all of the most successful bands that I have been in were based on everyone having an equal say, taking the best ideas and moving forward with them. The important thing is to create the best work possible utilising everybody’s skill and interests to the fullest extent possible. It is also one thing to read about this, or even write it, but having real world experience is what gives you faith in the process.

I knew writing for children was difficult. The choice of word and idea has to be carefully made to hold the interest of your reader and be of the appropriate complexity for the age you are writing for, all without talking down to them. I am also aware that the first draft of anything is really about getting the idea down. Everybody’s process is different; some like to have everything planned out, whilst others sit down and write to find the story. I am somewhere in the middle, but my big thing is always to get that first draft down so I can polish it later. The difficulty here is that it is very easy once you are deep in a draft to lose focus, either on plot, language, or both. This is where an editor is so helpful, because they read the draft without any of the baggage you bring having written it. Not to mention they are very likely better than you at writing in the first place.

It was not my first or second draft that headed off to be looked at, but having got the results back, it was certainly not my last either. I am still processing what Karen and I discussed, but the important thing is to have faith in process and not to be afraid to cut things that you truly love, or fight for the things that you believe are essential. It is not always easy to know which is which, but by talking it through and working hard they should become apparent. About the only thing I am sure of right now is that there will be questions heading to Karen in the coming weeks, but the pig-headed masochist in me is looking forward to the challenge of working over a new draft.

Time for me to get started.