Friday, December 31, 2010


One of the finest martial arts I ever studied was Kali/Eskrima. It's the art Kane uses in Crossroad Blues, though the bit where he talked about it didn't make the final cut of the story. Kali's a Philippine fighting style, and a big component involves taking the other guy's (or guys'-- dealing with multiple attackers is definitely something they work on) machete/knife/broken/etc away from him and making him regret he was ever born.

There's a tendency to push people behind you as you cut their throats. One reason is not to have flailing bodies in the way or blood spray blinding you as you deal with the dead guy's buddies. Another, maybe even more important reason, is so that the fighter doesn't have to actually see the results of the damage they do.

With that in mind, I'm not looking back at 2010. Too much blood on the floor, a lot of it my own.

So what's next for 2011?


I will bring out AT LEAST THREE more novels as e-books. (Since I've already got one *almost* ready to go, this one's not that hard)

I will bring out SERINA Vol. 1 as an e-book. (Graphic novels are an *enormous* pain in the ass to e-book, but it'll be nice to see them again)

I will finish my current WiP (I wanted another easy one-- of course I'm going to finish the latest novel)
and last, but not least...

I will build that online awareness that will help people find my work. (This one's going to be the hardest for me-- I'm happy toiling away at all my various projects, but I suck when it comes time to market them. This year, I'll do whatever it takes!)

That's it. No resolutions about languages or classes, diets or exercise or love or sex. I want more people reading my books.

How about you?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


So I noticed something on my latest WiP (working titles A Madman's Mercy or Wrecking Ball): I'm most of the way through Act I and there's not a single bit of dialogue attribution. No 'he said' or 'she said', let alone 'whispered', 'shouted', 'muttered', 'growled' or any of the rest of it. It was an odd thing to notice.

This wasn't a conscious decision. I mean, I have definitely been moving away from the attributive excesses of my early work. In its recent rewrite, my first novel lost over eight thousand words of useless attributions alone. In the beginning, I was absolutely said-happy!

I certainly reined that impulse in early on, and apparently the process continues. These days I'm favoring what I call stage-business attribution:

"The fat man promised us Christmas off." Jackson's fingers brushed the butt of his gun. "We always get Christmas off."
"You want to be the one to tell him?"
"Shit, I look like I got a death wish?"

It's a way of sneaking in character, mood, tension, layers of extra meaning, whatever the scene needs right then, and I don't have to bother with said.

Try these:

"The fat man promised us Christmas off," Jackson said. "We always get Christmas off."
"You want to be the one to tell him?"
"Shit, I look like I got a death wish?"


"The fat man promised us Christmas off," Jackson said. His fingers brushed the butt of his gun. "We always get Christmas off."
"You want to be the one to tell him?"
"Shit, I look like I got a death wish?"

Now, this is all down to individual style, but for me that second one (just using 'said') still delivers the 'punch line' at "death wish", but these could be Wal-Mart employees for all we know. The third does up the tension and the stakes with the gun, but it's just that teensy bit more flabby than the first example.

And I do try to keep my work lean.

Occurs to me now as I type, two of my recent Kindle-reads were No Country for Old Men and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Written forty or fifty years apart, in neither work will you find a single instance of 'he said'. The voices are clear and easy to distinguish, and if I found myself a bit lost for a moment, I usually caught up with a line or two more of dialogue...

Just thought I'd share. :)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Bit Like Hiking

So recently I (or one of me-- see my Facebook pages for the schizophrenic details) was moved to post on the wall of the Mighty Miss DeBow:

"This isn't a sprint, you. It's a long, grueling cross-country race, through forests and mountains and stretches of desert where the sand burns and the harsh winds shred your flesh. Run if you like, crawl if you must. No one cares that you entered until you reach one of the finish lines, but if you stop moving, well, the bones of others before you are piled high on every side..."

This may have been a little bleak, a little harsh. I've bee
n pretty bleak and harsh of late. These things happen.

Thing is, there's some truth in there.

So often, we creative types feel like we're in some kind of race. Like we should be going faster, harder. Like if we haven't made (insert milestone here) yet, we're somehow failing.

Fact is, this crazy life is not a race. It's not even the long-distance race I referred to earlier. It's more like a hike.

I'm a big fan of hiking. Here in NZ we call it tramping. (And yes, I'm also a big fan of
complaining about hiking, but that's human nature, innit?) Thing about hiking is, you know you stand at the bottom of a bloody great hill and say to yourself, yeah I'm walking to the top of that thing.

So you start. One foot, another. A few steps and a few more. You walk until you start to get tired, or the sun starts to beat down on your head, or you decide you really,
really need that drink of water. You look back. Hell, you've barely moved. That damn h
ill is still just as high, and your car is still terribly, terribly close.

So you turn your feet uphill and start walking again. One step after another. One stupid foot at a stupid fucking time.

You come to hate yourself. You wonder what you were thinking when you set out. Your life becomes a tiny, hyperfocused prism of movement. Step by plodding step. Every time you stop to look around, the peak still seems just as high, the car in the parking lot only marginally smaller. You don't even know WHY you keep going, only that you do.

After a time, you no longer look back. You don't look ahead either. You look at your feet, willing left and right and left again to carry you forward, step by step by stupid fucking step.

You curse a lot.

Bugs bite you. You sweat. The sun becomes a hammer against your skin. Sweat prickles and dries and itches. Your water bottle grows lighter, but you are no less thirsty. You forget
about the summit. You quit thinking about walking. Every little piece of you is concentrated on lifting one knee, and then the other, just lifting it high enough to fall that little bit further forward.

You wonder why any sane human would do such a thing. And you suspect the answer is that no sane human would.

This isn't a race. It isn't a competition of any kind. If you were to say fuck it and turn around, no one would know or care. You're doing this for you, for reasons you neither care to name or describe.

And please, never mind those senior citizens who passed you on the way up and are now wishing you a good morning on their way back down. Don't even think about them. Just keep lifting those goddamn knees...

Every novel I've written has been like this. Hell, my whole writing career is like this. And my art career. And more than a few of my longer, cooler paintings and tattoos. The compressed narratives of Hollywood condition us to expect that success comes at the end of a montage full of 80's music. Real life is about bugs, and sweat, and long hard effort.

And yeah, it's effort no one cares about. The world doesn't care if you quit. It doesn't know you're the next Stephen King or Nuryev or Mozart or MC Hammer until you actually ARE. In the meantime, you're just another hiker on the trail. And don't for a moment doubt that they too are just hikers on their own trails. Just trying to lift one foot in front of another....

It's long. It's hard. There's no end in sight and there are probably better things you could be doing. But this is what you do. So do it.

And yeah, there are rewards along the way!

Monday, November 22, 2010

100 Books, Sort Of...

At a loss for a topic (or beleaguered by too many potential topics), I stole this meme from Candy's blog. The idea is, go through the list and bold the ones you've read.

An interesting aside: regarding the psychology of the book mix: in a study where subjects were presented with a list of high-brow (Schindler's List) and low-brow (Mask) movies, high-brow movies made up a very high percentage of their lists. When they were told they'd actually have to WATCH those movies, the high-brow choices were suddenly 13 times less likely to be chosen.

This is why your Netflix queue is full of fine films you keep passing over for Chopper Chicks in Zombietown. And why every 'Top 100' book list is full of books people think they 'should' like...

Without further ado:

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34 Emma – Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Notes From a Revolution

So I decided, if I'm going to be selling these ebooks, I really should have an ereader.

At the time, the only ereader available in New Zealand was the Kobo. I bought one, and I was delighted.

The Kobo came with 100 books loaded, free-domain classics. More were available through Whitcoulls's website, the Kobo site itself in Canada, or pretty much anywhere else books were sold in .epub or .pdf format.

I made a few quick purchases, loaded that puppy up through the USB cable and I was off and running. The Kobo only has one control-- a soft blue square that lets you toggle directions and middle-click. It's your book-selector, your page-turner, your menu-caller-upper. With the Kobo, your right thumb does it all...

Fast-forward a month, and Amazon's Kindle is available here. Naturally, I ordered one of those too! And just as naturally, I began to compare:

The Kindle boots a little faster than the Kobo, and it lets me turn pages with either hand. Ebooks are easier to find for the Kindle (Amazon seems to have pretty much everything)-- I had to do a bit of hunting to find titles in .epub for the Kobo. On the other hand, the library on the Kobo is easier to navigate, and there's less chance of accidentally turning twenty or thirty pages because you stuck it in your pocket or set a bowl of peanuts down on the button. Overall, I kept the Kindle, though I do still miss the Kobo.

Now, the Revolution:

First thing I noticed was that my ereader was doing to my bookshelf what my iPod did for my CD rack. It only took a couple of days to go from the 'shock of the new' to regarding my books as heavy, clumsy, unwieldy antiques. Only the best-printed pages matched my ebook, and even then the font size simply refused to change. Mostly, my paperbacks and softcovers are brownish paper and grayish print, and even my new James Lee Burke featured paper so thin I could read the back of each page through the one I was looking at.

An ereader is also portable. Wildly, madly, beautifully portable. I can set it on the table or balance it on my knee while I eat, lay it on the counter while I cook, even set it on that shelf at the back of my shower so that I can read while I wash. (Yes, I'm an addict. And these gadgets are the Cadillac of crack-pipes!)

And when I read in bed, one arm out above the covers? Well, no more thumb-and-pinky page spreading, no more laying the book on my chest to turn the pages with my thumb. Just click. Click. Click. Page after page after delightful page...

That's the good. Now, the bad...

DRM: *Fuck* DRM. I want to be diplomatic, but this blog isn't titled 'Moderate Speeds and Caution'. Basically, the idea that I can't read a book and enjoy it enough to pass along to friend strikes me as bullshit.

Think about your favorite authors and how you found them. That second-hand bookstore or garage sale, that battered paperback left with the magazines in a coffee shop, that book a friend passed you after she finished it, telling you how great it was. Those 'pirate' (in the sense the publisher didn't get paid for my reading it) books led me to 'real' purchases. Often several times over, as I passed my favorites on and replaced them, passed them on and replaced them. None of that is possible with copy-protected ebooks, and if you ask me, it's a fine example of publishers stabbing themselves in the eye. An artist's greatest enemy isn't piracy, it's obscurity.

The corporations pushing for DRM say they're protecting the rights of artists, but the fact is they don't mind costing an author a sale as long as it keeps them from losing a dollar. And yeah, there's a very special mindset out there that thinks of second-hand sales as a form of theft. Public libraries must make these folks foam at the mouth.

Formats: As I mentioned earlier, finding .epubs wasn't always the easiest thing. And buying them online was often like pulling teeth. Amazon's got it all over their competition in that regard. Fortunately, there's a free program called Calibre that converts between formats with no trouble. Look into it.

Geography: Now, this is another rant at the asinine behavior of major publishers. (I can almost hear the print deals being taken off the table now) Why is it that I can buy a paperback by, say, Duane Swierczynski from Amazon and they'll mail it right out to my house, but if I try to download THE SAME BOOK they give me a song and dance about how it's only available in North America?

Is the publisher going to get paid? Yes. Will they get paid MORE for the ebook? Yes. Is there any compelling reason for me to wait for an Australasian version of the ebook to come out? No. So why the fuck are they dicking me around? I don't know.

Writers, let me ask you this: How many readers would you not have today if no one could ever lend your books out, or give them to friends when they were finished? And how many sales would have been lost if you had to wait for your publisher to sell foreign rights before an overseas customer could read your book?

There's a revolution underfoot, and the old tyrants are trying to use it as an opportunity to tighten the noose...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Shaken, Not Stirred

It was still dark when I woke. 4.30 Saturday morning, and someone was shaking my bed.

Except: My bed's enormous and I live alone. Shreds of sleep were still falling away when I knew the truth. I was in an earthquake.

More than one ex-girlfriend has compared me to stone, to wood, to a machine. I've been called cold-blooded, soulless and untouched by human emotion, usually when the women in question were trying to draw me into a shouting match.

Fact is, I'm just not that emotional in a crisis. Clear and decisive, yes, but not in the least emotional.

My bed thumped and jumped across the floor. Furniture rattled. The house shook but did not screech, creak or groan. I thought about the plate glass window behind my head and decided the curtains were protection enough. The power died. In the front of the house, something crashed.

I stayed calm enough not to wake Butler, sleeping beside me.

After the tremor stopped, I got up to check on Midge and Buddy. There were books all over the floor, but nothing major was broken and the cats were well.

I went back to sleep.

Unfortunately I didn't get the rest I needed. There were aftershocks to endure, texts and calls on my cell to send and receive, a bright spring sunrise and yet more aftershocks.

That morning I had coffee with some elderly neighbours. With no power, they boiled water and made toast on a barbeque grill. By then I knew my friends were safe, and vice versa. My neighbours and I had a lovely chat, and it was off to work.

The tattoo shop looked a wreck. Once the lighting fixtures were back in place and a tipped-over sculpture set back upright, it wasn't that bad. Frankie showed up, and together we cleaned up the spilled ink and broken potted plants, set the jewelry cabinet to rights and got the place back together. The room shook and jumped, stopped, shook again. We set the shop up so any further shocks wouldn't break anything and locked up again. That night I went to a friend's birthday party.

We've had over a hundred earthquakes in the last few days. Some of them rattled no more than a large truck passing in the street outside. Others had me scrambling to keep palette, painting and brushes from juddering to the floor. Buildings are falling around town, and some of my favourite restaurants and businesses are gone. We have power back, but will need to boil our water for some time to come.

Meanwhile I've kept the tattoo shop open and running, got the shop's bookkeeping sorted out, done my workouts at the gym (a building too old and tough to crumble) and navigated the rubble downturn to make it to the NZSA's monthly writer's lunch.

I also kept writing. Through all this, I keep drawing, painting, tattooing and piling up pages on my novel.

Way I look at it, life is just as fragile in good times and bad. Love is just as precious. Every life has disasters and crises.

None of that is any excuse. Every single one of us tap dances under a dangling sword. One day the blade will fall, and the only thing that matters worth a damn is the manner of your dance.

Or, as James Lee Burke is so fond of putting it, sometimes you just have to smile and walk through the smoke. :-)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Still Too Graphic

So, to update:

I *finally* got my first graphic novel Leather Tales up on Smashwords. To do this, I had to drastically compress the images (not sure yet how this may affect reading quality) and break the story into two parts, to be purchased separately.

The next day, I got an email from Smashwords, telling me that my Word .doc was giving strange results on different e-readers. Apparently, I needed to 'Align with text' for every image in order for them to display correctly. Bit of a learning curve here, but I won't make the same mistake again.

Right now I've got Serina Vol. 1 almost ready to go. I just need to get the cover done, but my illustrator's got a bit of a backlog at the moment. I've tried pressure, threats and flattery, but to no avail. Best I can say, he assures me he'll get to it next week. ;-)

By contrast, I took my .doc, sent it to Amazon as a PDF, and they had it Kindled up in a couple of days, no worries. I have to say, so far in this wild world of epublishing, Amazon makes it easiest.

And, oddly, as of this evening, Leather Tales has now outsold Crossroad Blues by two to one. I really do think Crossroad Blues is the more satisfying read, but apparently the market for lesbian assassins taking on The Mob is a fair bit larger... :-)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Robicheaux Blues

So I recently watched In the Electric Mist. I gotta say, this movie comes A LOT closer to the heart and soul of James Lee Burke's work than Heaven's Prisoners ever did.

First, big ups on the casting: Tommy Lee Jones is a damn good Dave Robicheaux. (secret confession: when I read the books, I often pictured him in the lead role anyway, so I may be biased here.) One thing confused me about the earlier movie was how not-quite-right Alec Baldwin was. I mean, the guy's got the kind of darkness in his real life that Dave has in his fictional past-- you think he'd be perfect.

But Tommy Lee carries that sadness and regret that is a much, *much* larger part of Dave's life. He carries it in his face, his posture, every delivery of line. Personally, I think this might be because Baldwin embraces his own dark nature (which makes him so brilliant on 30Rock and It's Complicated). At any rate, Jones definitely gives us that battered, regretful hero who struggles with his own inner darkness even as he feels forced to confront the evils that the rest of us do one another on a daily basis. In a word, the casting was brilliant.

Mist's director (Bertrand Tavernier) was a great choice, too. I don't know nearly enough about studio politics to know how this happened, but the guy had an *incredible* feel for the HEART of the Robicheaux novels: where Heaven's Prisoners dwelt on the visuals of Southern Louisiana and the glamorous decay integral to that part of the world, Mist captures Robicheaux's inner torment as an implacable killer destroys the innocent and his every foray into the world of his suspects leaves him feeling like he just stuck his hand into an unflushed toilet.

Two things stuck out for me: the clever use of voiceover to share Robicheaux's thoughts (the technique is unpopular in Hollywood these days, but I think it's important to create the right atmosphere) and the by-the-book delivery of Dave's lines.

As a writer, Burke often ends his scenes by having secondary characters trying to give Robicheaux advice he refuses to hear. They stand frustrated while Dave pushes paper clips around his desk, squeezes his fists or just plain stares out into his own bleak middle distance.

Seen acted out on screen, the effect is unnerving.

My one reservation with this movie was the depiction of violence. These moments are well-choreographed but poorly shown. Tavernier uses middle-shots, showing the action but keeping the viewer at a distance. We lose that horrible sense of loss that Dave feels when he gives rein to his temper, that terrible immediacy of fist crashing into bone and horsetails of blood fanning the walls.

For me, I got the sense that the director was himself uncomfortable with personal violence. His visual language in the rest of the movie was eloquent, but in this one area he fell down. Any of you looking to catch the immediacy and feel I'd be looking for to depict the Burke novels, I recommend Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors or Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven.

But I quibble. Over all, I came away feeling satisfied and happy that somebody had finally done reasonable justice to James Lee Burke's novels...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Too Graphic

Hot on the heels of Crossroad Blues, I was ready for more action. I was ready to get graphic.

Graphic novels, I mean. Of course. :)

Leather Tales was my first graphic novel. Also the first thing I ever wrote and finished. Oddly enough, also my biggest seller by a wide margin. Since it's been out of print for something like eight years, it seemed a natural choice for my first graphic e-book.

Smashwords is pretty clear on their guidelines: they want Word .docs, nothing else. A graphic novel in Word is 132 *individual*, page-sized pictures with not a single word of text between them. My laptop displayed the file fine, but the slightly older desktop at work tended to skip every fourth or fifth page. The pages were still there if I backed up and looked for them again, but not if I was just moving forward normally... I had no idea if I'd be publishing a graphic novel or a train wreck.

Then it turns out that Smashwords won't accept a .doc over 5mb. Leather Tales is six times that size, so that's on hold for the moment. I'll either have to reduce the file size of each page *or* serialize the novel by splitting it into parts. At the moment, I'm not sure which...

Amazon, on the other hand, had no problem with my file size, or with working from a much more sane PDF. They did sit on the project for most of a week while they worked out that I did in fact own the rights to publish my book. (Leather Tales originally appeared in print in 2000, under a two-year license to a company that has long since sunk beneath the waves.) They also put a delivery charge on the book that would have reduced my royalty to something like thirty cents.

So my graphic novel isn't $2.99. I had to charge $4.99 to get my two bucks out of it. But hey, five bucks is the cost of a Starbucks, or a mug of tap beer. And I guarantee Leather Tales will entertain you longer... :)

Check it out!

Monday, July 26, 2010

It Is Done

Crossroad Blues is loaded on Smashwords and Kindle. Leather Tales is being re-scanned. Blood & Skin is getting the heavy edit it deserves. And the novel I'm writing right now (working title Blood Ties) is actually stomping toward the finish line.

There's even a fresh new website. I'll post links once Crossroad Blues is 'live' at both ebook sites!

Thursday, July 22, 2010


I write like
Raymond Chandler

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I am, needless to say, chuffed!

(Tip of the hat to Kate for the link!)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

How Covers Happen

All over the web, every writer's blog seems at some point or other to carry that plaintive wail, "How could they give my book that cover??"
Well, as a part-time illustrator getting into self-publishing, I'm in a unique position. Over the next post or two, I'll take you through the process of coming up with what I hope is a grabbing book cover.

First, I like to think I've got the best possible author/art dept. relationship: we are the same person, after all. No way writer-me was going to find a more sympathetic and conscientious cover artist, or one with a more vested interest in the title in question doing well... ;-)

That doesn't mean it was a trouble-free relationship. You see, writer-me spent a lot of time and effort honing that story until each and every one of its 80-odd thousand words serves a purpose. As far as the writer in me is concerned, that story is as lean as I can make it.

The artist gets one image. One. Out of every scene in the book, I only get one picture, one chance to draw you in, to turn a browser into a reader. (With any luck, the story itself will turn the reader into a fan, but that's another story.)

Now, I'm overworked, but not as overworked as the average publishing house's art department. And like I said before, I have that vested interest. Still, I treated it like any other illustration job: I broke out pencil and watercolor and started with a couple pages of thumbnails, maybe a dozen or so all told. Quite a few were, frankly, crap. It didn't matter-- this was brainstorming time, and crap still gets a seat at the table.

Second, I tacked up my thumbnails and had a look. The reasoning is, once our covers are out in the world, we have very little control over how they are displayed. A concept that's eyecatching at three inches tall from across the room just might stand a chance when it's elbowing for attention among its peers.
Tacked up like that, I could see my two strongest concepts at a glance. One was from the climactic final fight, Harlan and Kane fighting for their lives in a snow-covered forest. The other felt like a betrayal of my writer-self: Kane standing at a desolate crossroads, the Otago plains before him stretching out into the Southern Alps. There's no such scene in the book, but artist-me felt the image caught the essence of the book's hero.

The writer in me railed a bit, but there's no denying a good image. And it's certainly not like the art department was just trying to fob me off or anything-- I knew my illustrator was taking this seriously.

(Starting to wonder about my multiple job-personalities? You ought to be in the room when they start arguing! lol)

So, a little painting later, I had two images. Both are composed to lead the eye in certain directions. Both have a fair amount of 'dead' space to accomodate titles, etc. I liked the strong diagonals in the snowscape and Harlan's murderous insanity. The crossroad picture is calmer in composition-- the idea here was to use the 'crossroad' as 'crosshairs' to center the eye on Kane. His strong black presence in all that bleak autumn space hopefully convey the hero's poised and quiet menace. The way Jack Schaefer describes Shane as 'like a steel trap about to spring'.

The paintings were too big to scan (working larger makes for a sharper image when reduced), so I shot them at 5mg with a digital SLR I picked up cheap and used. I made sure to take the photos outside and in the shade, to prevent flashburn, glare, etc. The unretouched photos are just over there on your right.

Next, I opened them images up in GIMP (a free-download graphics program, kind of like a poor man's Photoshop). I used the color toolbar to adjust the levels, deepening and brightening and making the image just overall richer. The title font is a freeware TTF that really does the trick nicely, and I played a fair bit with font colors before I was happy.

(Note: If any of you want to try this yourself, use 'Save As' to make a separate copy of each major stage. You'll thank yourself when you screw up or want to change something.)

After that, it was up for the vote. Those of you on my Facebook art page saw the four variant covers. Over the course of a weekend, I got votes and comments from almost a hundred people. It wasn't long before there was a clear winner. A few helpful suggestions taken on board, and...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bare Knuckle Sandwich

First, I want to thank Charles, over at Razored Zen. His decision to publish his short story collection Killing Trail for the Kindle format made a little light bulb go on over my head. Way I'm feeling lately, the natural thing to do was to smash the bulb and use the jagged shards to go for the jugular. :-)

You see, I've got four out-of-print graphic novels and four or maybe five novels that for one reason or another aren't quite right for my agent. Thanks to Charles, it occured to me that while the lovely and talented Agent Anne shops those novels that do suit her, I can be out there selling everything else.

I've got...

A thriller/modern-day western

A graphic novel about love and second chances, told against a backdrop of sex and gunfire

A supernatural thriller featuring black magic, vengeful ghosts and... tattoos?

A graphic novel featuring the modern-day Knights Templar.

A zombie novel

Two graphic novels about bad love, set in pre-Katrina New Orleans

And a couple of erotic novels which are, quite frankly, filthy.

The plan right now is to roll them out on Kindle and Smashwords and maybe even that AmazonPOD thing I keep hearing about.

I like how Charles calls his publishing effort Razored Zen Press. Looking for a name to unite such a disparate body of work, the choice is obvious:

Bare Knuckle Press!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

More Blogs I Love

Kate Sterling's Mischief & Magic: Kate's something of a fellow-traveler, an artist/writer who shares many of my own triumphs and challenges. Unlike me, she seems to do it with perfect good humor and an unbeatable sense of optimism. Every visit to Kate's blog leaves me inspired.

Avery DeBow
: Or AvDeeBee, as she's taken to styling herself, has got one of the coolest, wildest, funkiest literary experiments on the web: She's writing a serial novel, with her readers submitting nouns, adjectives, key verbs. It's like the old game Mad Libs, except that Avery writes with assurance and brio enough to pull it off!
Angie's Desk: Angela Benedetti is another great inspiration to me. Her advice on technique, industry insights and general good humor keep me coming back to her blog again and again.

All three of these women are excellent writers I'm proud to call friends.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bare Knuckles

It's not exactly a huge secret that this past year or so has been bloody frustrating for me. Well, I've had about enough.

I'm getting ready to make some changes. To get back to the solid core of what I've been, and to head off in some new directions.

And, as always, I'm going to come out swinging and take no prisoners... >:-)

(On another note, as soon as Google Reader starts to cooperate again, I'll resume my 'Blogs I Love' posts-- I've barely scratched the surface!)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Needful Shouts II

More blogs I love to read, and why:

Bernita's Innocent-A:

For my money, there's simply no one better at writing about craft. Or the business of writing. Or the strange and sometimes eerie tone-poem that is our mutual journey from cradle to grave. She's quite simply a wonderful writer.

Barbara Martin's Self-Titled Blog:

Her book reviews are enjoyable, but Barbara's real strength is in her photo essays of Canada's hiking trails. She really brings the Rocky Mountain wilderness to life!

Shauna's Love of Words:

There's a strange phenomenon made possible (perhaps even common) by the internet: friends you've never actually met. I'm actually good friends with many of the writers behind my favorite blogs, and Shauna is one of my favorites. Her wit and charm, good humor and good company make every visit a treat. :)

Frankenstein 1959:

There's no one like Wayne Allen Sallee. No one. Part madman, part poet, a writer and urban visionary right to his core, Wayne has a publishing track record that would be a credit to any wordsmith. His blog is wild, a closer look at the strange and forgotten corners of old comics, cheesy monster movies, his own past and present and above all the fractured, ever-changing face of his beloved Chicago. I don't have the right words to do this man justice...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Needful Shouts I

Last night blogger was being a little cranky. So was I, once the codeine wore off. I did manage to remove the old links, the dead links and the links I haven't traveled since forever. Tonight (and I suspect for a few nights to come), I'll be adding new ones.

And it occured to me, maybe y'all would enjoy seeing what I'm reading and why. You never know, you just might find a new favourite! :-)

I'll do a few at a time. Tonight, in no particular order:

The Dreaming Tree:

Lana Gramlich is one heck of a fine painter and photographer. A few minutes spent looking at the pretty pictures never fails to inspire...

Erik's Choice:

Erik Donald France writes about architecture and old times, urban planning and book reviews and the Blues. It's an eclectic mix, always entertaining.

Down Under-- Kiwi Thoughts:

Heather Hapeta is a friend, a fellow writer, a lunch buddy and one heck of a well-traveled, on-to-it, entertaining lady. Any of you out there interested in travel writing will find her an invaluable resource.

Lavender, Spice and All Things Nice:

Back when she was in Christchurch, I was a HUGE fan of Melanie's baking. I miss her dearly, but if she hadn't moved when she did, I'd look like Ben Stiller at the end of Dodgeball about now...,

Seriously, her food rocks. I want more.

That's me for tonight. I'm going to take a little codeine, write a few more pages and drift.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


A week before my surgery, I had a consult with my anaesthesiologist. When I pointed out that he seemed more concerned about this project than my surgeon, he gave me the reason for his gravity.

"Anaesthesia," he said, "is the fine art of almost, but not quite, killing you. I'd rather like to make sure we bring you back."

Chastened, I did what he told me. On the day, a little valium loosened me up. Some *very* happy liquid started pumping into a vein in the back of my hand. A nice young lady put a rubber mask over my face. The air blowing into the mask began to taste medicinal and I went away.

That was a week ago. I'm mending nicely, no complaints. Thing is, the guy who came out of the anaesthetic isn't quite the same as the guy who went under.

Maybe it's the lovely, lovely meds I'm on. Or the promise of actually being pain free once this wound heals. Or some kind of mystical, near-death thing (I certainly felt MIGHTY strange after I came back around). Don't know, don't care. All I can say is, I feel like a sludgy old hard drive that's been reformatted. Faster startup, faster functioning, a new lease on life.

Anyway, this new guy still likes writing and drawing and all the big major things, but there are differences, lots of little differences. Differences I can't explain: The thought of sardines is no longer appetizing. The book I was reading before the operation was no longer interesting. I've had a strange compulsion to put lots of Led Zeppelin on my iPod.

Little differences. And yeah, I'm enjoying this slightly altered new version. The biggest thing I've noticed is that I'm clear and active, effective in a way I haven't been for at least a year. maybe two.

This rocks!

Anyway, to that end, I'll be cleaning house on this blog-- sweeping out the old and unused, adding in the awesome but long-neglected. And I might just look around and see if I can find a new look for this blog, too....

It's good to be back, y'all. :-)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Just When I Thought I Was Out

So my graphic novels have been out of print for five or so years now, but there's still no shortage of folks who see me as a cartoonist.

My love affair with comics has been powerful and painful, and yeah, maybe it broke my heart. But it seems that when it comes down to it, I'll still rush to their defense...

You can read the interview here. :)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Drop Means Props

Our friend Candy is currently in the middle of her annual struggle with the Art Department to find a cover for the latest St. Cyr novel.

Just thought I'd show her that she's getting her props over here in the Antipodes!

(And just in case you didn't know, 'drop' is when the bookstore puts your book face-out there in the aisle or at the front of the store. Obviously, this means more copies are going to get picked up and looked at, so the stores charge the publishers dearly for the privilege. Your publisher will only come up out of the pocket if they think people are actually going to BUY your book. In the publishing world, drop is a serious show of support.)

Monday, March 22, 2010


United States takes a crucial step closer to joining modern civilization.

It ain't perfect, and it's still pretty primitive compared to the way things work out here in the civilized world, but I for one am happy for this little bit of progress in my birth country...

Good on ya!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Subtle Tools

My last post was about characterization. I used cinematic examples, something I often do because the odds are better that you've all seen the same movies than that you've read the same books. Unfortunately, I feel that I managed to snare myself a little bit there.

You see, talking about movies, it's too easy to fall into the visual language of film. Too easy to overlook some of the novelist's finest tools.

Sure, there are some things movies do that books can't. The best car chases I've ever read (all by George Pelecanos, as it happens) still struggle to compare to the average Hollywood action movie. And the fine fight scenes of John D MacDonald, Joe R Lansdale, John Connolly or Lee Child still don't compare to the adrenalin rush of watching Jason Bourne, Daniel Craig's Bond or Jet Li.

Movies do visual. They do it well, brilliantly even. But that is also Hollywood's weakness: they can only put an image on the screen.

Novelists have a wonderful array of much, much more subtle tools at their disposal.

I'll use the former example of a 'Clark Kent' character, someone who may seem mild on the outside but the reader is to understand possesses hidden depths.

Thoughts: It may seem too obvious, but we do have the power to let our readers in on our characters' thoughts. Way back when, mild-mannered Clark might have thought, "Janet doesn't suspect that I am Secret Heroman, the one she seeks." These days, it's more fashionable and effective to have another character give that information to the reader:

Janet watched Clark move around the room. He always came off like a big shaggy dog, sort of clumsy and sweet, but Janet was never able to escape the sense that Clark was a steel trap, coiled and ready to spring.

Now, no matter what a dishrag Clark is over the next few chapters, we'll still have that little seed in the back of our minds. And notice that in addition to moving into another character's head for the thoughts, I also didn't present those thoughts as dialogue.

Small Reactions: Movies do a pretty fair job with the big reactions, and a particularly gifted actor can express a wide array of subtle emotions just by lifting an eyebrow. But a filmmaker cannot be sure of getting their star of choice, or of the shot they want. And there's no guarantee the folks in the seats will see interpret that raised eyebrow the right way, or even notice it. With prose, we can isolate these expressions and make sure the reader knows what it means.

Janet's eyes narrowed. That car had come within inches of hitting them, and Clark didn't seem to care. Her own heart was racing, her breath short. Clark was cool and calm, quiet and poised. Almost bored.

"That maniac could have killed us," he said.

We know how we would react to a minor crisis like a near hit and run. Clark's unusual reaction, and Janet's careful appraisal, plant that crucial seed. Also, her more normal reactions are there for contrast.

Outright Exposition: This tool isn't subtle, but one of our strengths as novelists is the length of story that we have to work with. Every second of screen-time in a movie costs a small fortune, quite a bit more than a page of print.

"You stand around there, looking all sleepy and slow and not too bright, but you don't fool me." The old man shook his head and laughed. "I was there that night the Jonas brothers showed up drunk and high and God knows what else. They were pure tearing the hell out of the place, and you just stood there like a big dope watching. Right up until those boys laid a hand on Miss Polly."

This time the old man laughed until he coughed, and he coughed until he spat, thin and brown.

"I was there, boy. You can't fool me."

John D MacDonald used this one a fair bit. Yeah, it sidetracks us from the narrative. Yeah, there are more economical ways to drop this hint. So what. You make it entertaining enough and your readers will be too busy imagining what happened that night with the Jonas brothers to notice that they were sidelined.

Environment: This one's great fun. You get to be all poetical and stuff. Basically, you take some quality of the environment or element of the natural world and juxtapose it against your character to make a point.

"The wallet, dickhead. Give it." The gun in the mugger's hand was a little block of chrome, no bigger than a child's toy. To Janet the barrel looked as wide as the Holland Tunnel.

It was a beautiful summer day in the park. Children played on the swings, students threw a frisbee on the lawn and an urban hawk wheeled overhead, still and slow.

Clark stood. He held his hands low and out to his sides.

"You hear me, dickhead? The wallet."

Janet thought she might wet her pants. If the gun in the mugger's hand bothered Clark, he gave no sign. His eyes moved from the children to the students and back to the man with the gun. He pulled a flat square of dark leather from his front pocket. The hawk's shadow glided over the grass at his feet.

The mugger grabbed the wallet and ran. Janet bent over, knees shaking. Tears rose hot and shameful, blinding her.

"Goddammit, Clark, why couldn't you
do something? God damn it!"

Clark said nothing. The hawk plummeted, a dark shadow out of the blue sky, seizing its prey.

James Lee Burke is really the master at this. His latest book features a brilliant scene in which a mild-seeming man confronts an underworld figure. The man's words are quiet, his manner assured. On the far side of the picture window, a shark menaces a group of swimmer's. The hitman's true nature, and the danger he represents are clear.

There are probably a few more I could think of, but right about now I need to be getting back to the ol' novel...

Monday, March 1, 2010

Introducing Clark Kent

It's an old rule, but a good (and important) one: Always, always, *always* bring 'em onstage in character.

How many Bond movies have you seen? How many Batman? Notice they usually start with a big action splash? Sometimes it hooks into the ongoing story; others, it simply stands to intorduce the hero. At any rate, within a few seconds of the movie starting, you know you're looking at a man of action.

Or how about Jack Reacher? Every book in the series starts with Reacher being cool and collected, kicking ass and on the move. Even Tarzan's first adult appearance (after opening chapters describing his infancy and childhood) involves him hunting the deadly and feared black panther.

How do we meet Bridget Jones? Hapless, eating, drinking and smoking too much, embarrassed by her mother and about to make a horrible faux pas-- pretty much her character in a nutshell.

Robert DeNiro in Ronin: He stands outside the small French cafe, looking in. He wanders around the back to scout the exit, leaves a gun hidden where he can reach it in a hurry. That way, he gets through the frisk at the entrance, still knows how to get out and get lethal, should the need arise. We know right away, here's a guy who thinks ahead. Way ahead.

Hmmm... villains? Well, this is a writer's place to shine-- you get to show that son of a bitch being a true son of a bitch, even if he's trying to hide it.

Which brings me to the crux of my issue: how do you introduce Clark Kent?

For the few comics-imparied among you (and in which case, why *are* you reading this blog?) Clark Kent is Superman's alter ego. To decompress from the pressures of being God on Earth, Supes likes to unwind by being a bit of a pantywaist. Ahem, excuse me... 'mild mannered'.

So how do you bring the mild-mannered pantywaist onstage without losing your reader? And how do you hint that behind those glasses and that stutter, he's actually faster than a speeding bullet?

Tonight I saw 'From Paris With Love'. (Small confession: I'll go see ANYTHING Luc Besson does-- he's a master storyteller. If the man wants to adapt Green Eggs and Ham, he'll make one fine and gripping thriller out of it!)

We first meet Reese (played by new heartthrob Jonathon Rhys Meyers) in his Clark Kent role at the US Embassy in Paris. I watched him spend several seconds receiving a fax and thought, 'ah Jeez...'

Seriously, like five or ten seconds of film time, his hand is hovering over the paper as it comes out of the fax machine. It just doesn't get any more dweebish than that.

Until he talks. Poor Reese is a flunky to the Ambassador, the guy who brings coffee and schedules appointments and reminds his boss of people's names. So how do we show the hero hidden under this zero?

Well, as he flunkies about, he's also kicking his boss's ass at chess. We see him in action, see him thinking several moves ahead of a guy who fancies himself something of an expert. And before the scene is done, he gets the call from his spy-handler sending him on a mission.

You can show us the dweeb, but you've got under a minute to let those glasses slip. Lois Lane (or the US Ambassador, or whoever) may not notice, but the reader has to see that there's something more than mild manners under that facade.

Same goes for hidden villains. If your villain is posing as a friend at first, let us see a little something that shows what a real sumbitch he really is!

Daniel Cleever comes to mind. Hugh Grant needs nothing more than a two-second look to show us what kind of man he is, and how foolish Bridget would be to get involved with him.

Fagan comes off as a friend to Oliver Twist, but the other kids are afraid of him.

Eleanor starts The Haunting of Hill House with a blatant appeal to our sympathy (her life really, really, *really* sucks) and a bit of Grand Theft Auto. Come to think of it, that book ends on a note every bit as ambiguous as it begins. I guess journeys really do end in lovers meeting...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Damn Victor Gischler

Seriously. I'm a busy guy: I've got a novel to finish, a business to run, pictures to draw and I'm doing a fair amount of public speaking these days. There's this flabby little belt around my middle that needs working off. My plate is stacked very, very full is what I'm saying.

Just about the only relaxing, goof-off time I get is a few minutes here and there to curl up with a good book. These brief visits are the islands of calm that keep the whirlwind turning.

I ought to know better than to pick up a Victor Gischler.

Gun Monkeys. Shotgun Opera. Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse. It's the same thing every time.

Most recently I picked up his newest, Vampire a Go-Go. I was tired, but I figured, you know, ten minutes' reading before bed wouldn't kill me.

I have no idea how much time actually passed. There are 127 new texts on my phone. There are irate emails from various speaking engagements in my inbox. There are dark hollow circles under my eyes and I seem to have grown a beard.

My recycling bin is full of empty Oreo boxes and I appear to have gained ten pounds.

And all I want is Victor Gischler's next book.

Seriously: the guy's books are great, but make sure you clear your schedule first...

Monday, January 4, 2010

A New Years Wish

May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books, and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art. Write, or draw, or build, or sing, or live, as only you can.

May your coming year be a wonderful thing, in which you dream both dangerously and outrageously. I hope you'll make something that didn't exist before you made it; that you will be loved, and you will be liked; and you will have people to love and to like in return. And most importantly, because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now, I hope that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind. And I hope that somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.

Neil Gaiman, January 1, 2010

Hells yeah!

You can watch him say it here....