Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Fine Art of Talking to People Who Aren’t There: Drawing Fictional Characters to Life

 I’m delighted to have a wonderful, multi-talented writer as a guest on my blog today, Jeff Davis. Jeff is the author of a new YA fantasy novel, The Seeds.  

I was surprised to discover that, like me, Jeff likes to draw his characters and put them somewhere he can see them when he writes.

For at least 20 years, I’ve had a drawing of Toren taped under the hutch that goes over my desk. The look on her face tells me that she has a story that needs to be told. More recently I’ve had a drawing of Gilbert Garfinkle taped there too. Unlike Toren, the look on his face says, “Oh, no. What are you going to do to me this time?” Sorry, Gilbert, but I have to follow what I call Murphy’s Law for fiction writers: namely, if anything can go wrong for your main character, it should.

Jeff shared with me his thoughts about drawing characters and how this helps in the writing process. Even if you can’t draw, just having a visual representation of your character—perhaps an illustration or a photo you found online—can help you in the same way. I know some writers who collect photos on Pinterest that they use for inspiration.

So what exactly can a drawing of your character do for you?

Here’s Jeff with the answer to that question:


There’s a demon on my screen giving me attitude.

Matra from The Seeds by Jeff Davis

As a kid, I was always drawing. Usually heroes and dragons. Facing them, riding them, conjuring them, my characters were always captured within an action. Something was going on. I would sit and stare at them, waiting to find out how their stories played out in my mind’s eye. The stories were always so much more intriguing than my meager talents could portray. It was as if each drawing was seen through a window into whatever world I was dreaming up.

Fast forward to the present.

 Writing blog posts, web copy and promotional materials doesn’t leave much room for fantastic characters or muscle-bound heroes, even though that kind of writing does weave a narrative that’s suppose to whisk you off to a more utopian world. But fantasy fiction? Ah! 

That’s the thing.

When I started writing my first fantasy novel, “The Seeds”, it was written in my head far longer than it has existed in print. I would watch the characters move through scenarios in my mind’s eye, just like when I was a kid.  But, where a budding artist can draw a sword in a hand if the situation calls for it, a writer must make having that sword consistent, it must make sense.

 As an exercise in continuity, I decided to create a more complex set of designs for my first major effort. Each of the main characters was created in full color that I could pull up when necessary. Does he carry a sword? I might want to mention that fact somewhere before he whips it out. Physical descriptions? To avoid the characters from becoming perfect in every way, some boundaries are needed.

But, the most surprising and most frequent use of these visual references came when writing dialogue.

Witty banter is fun to write, and usually rolls right across my keyboard. For Varia and Dartura of “The Seeds”, being twins makes their conversations appear pointed and clipped. They know what the other is going to say almost before it's said, so only what is needed is expressed. It’s almost like the lossy compression of video for the web; only the pixels that change from the last keyframe are rendered. (If that makes sense to you, Yay! You’re a geek like me!)

But, it was the shadowy antagonist that vexed me.

How many times can one rely on writing “Bah!” to express contempt? I had to really convey a personality that I didn’t have in me--that of a conniving trickster old enough to be bored with her world, yet sinister enough to care little for the damage she does. So, I created Matra in graphic form.

Her eyes would stare malevolently at me as I posed questions to her. I would form dialogue, out loud, and actually ask if that was what she would say in that scenario. She didn’t really answer. (Thankfully, or I might be writing this from a padded cell.) But the disdain in her expression was enough for me to interpret when something worked (I hope), or when it didn’t.

I usually write whenever I get the chance, but most frequently at night, when the house is quiet. Often, my wife would open the door to my office, only to quietly close it again as I sat arguing with Matra. (“But, you hate this guy! Why would you be cordial?”) More than once my wife searched my eyes for some physical sign of the madness that was surely creeping over me. When I announced that “The Seeds” was complete, I was unsure which of us was more relieved.

Still, not only sketching but fully realizing my characters is a practice that I will continue to use as my writing improves. The illustrations take on a new life when complete, and for me at least, really form the basis of the inner workings of a character. The downside for the reader may be that they interpret the character differently, but that’s okay. I would like nothing more than for a reader to tell me, “I saw this character like this…”

If you are reading my work enough to form such opinions, it can only help me become a better writer.

Jeff Davis


Author bio:

Jeff Davis has worked with some of the finest high technology teams in the business and has delivered to some of the world's most recognizable companies the high quality graphics, multimedia and print materials they demand, all over the world. He majored in art and design, and he continues to regard himself as a student of the history and reinvention of popular culture. As an author, Jeff hopes to bring his unique ideas to life in this medium. A visitor to his studio office will be treated to the sounds of Led Zeppelin, Sheryl Crow, Kate Bush and traditional Celtic music. Jeff resides an hour north of Manhattan, N.Y. with his wife and two children.


This is not your grandmother's fairy tale. A fantasy novel that turns the genre on its head, "The Seeds" follows Trooper Angus Mayweather as he is thrust into the conflict faced by twin sisters Dartura & Varia, Generals of the Tarol Nation. As the sisters uncover a new threat from an old enemy, Angus must do what he can to help as the Tarol Nation faces all-out war.

Click here to check out drawings of Characters from“The Seeds”.
Order "The Seeds" from Smashwords
Find Jeff Davis on Google+Facebookor Twitter @JDSavageTV


Do you find drawing from other mediums helps you with writing?  If so, what medium, and how does it help? Do you have a picture of your main character or a place in your story? Does listening to a certain kind of music put you in the right mood? If you haven't thought of using pictures this way before, how do you think they might help  you? What would you ask your main character, and how do you think your main character would respond? 

Please leave your answers in the comments below. Thanks!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Challenges of Writing with Dyslexia

I asked author Alicia Kat Dillman to tell me how she overcame dyslexia to write her debut novel, Daemons in the Mist

This is her answer:

“It is my great strength that gets me where I want to go, but it is my flaws, my weaknesses, that made me who I am.”

Sometimes I am so determined in my need to succeed that I forget just how much I have accomplished and just how far I have come.

I don’t like to dwell on things I can’t change or things that I have no control over. Instead, I just keeping moving forward toward the goals I set for myself.

I have dyslexia; in fact I have all three forms.

When I write, sometimes I move letters or words around out of order. And half the time when I read it back, I'll miss the error because my brain is auto-correcting it for me. This is made even worse, if I’m trying to write while the TV is on or someone is trying to talk to me. I will literally start transcribing the audio into the sentences inter-spaced with what I was trying to write. Sometimes words just end up there that are out of the blue and completely unrelated to anything I was thinking.

Because I know this happens, I work around it.

It’s all about focusing on what you need to do instead of focusing on what prevents you from doing it.

I listen to music that won’t distract me and try to write mostly when everyone is asleep, which means about 90% of my writing is done between 11pm-4am. For example, I’m writing this at 2am.

Dyslexia isn’t something that goes away or something you grow out of. It’s something you have to deal with every day, something that’s just a part of what makes you, you.

The point is not to let it run your life.

Sure, nearly every time I write “me” it comes out “my,” instead or vice versa. And I will forever type “chnage” instead of “change,” even though I know how it’s spelled. And I can read a sentence a dozen times and still not see the mistakes, because my brain corrects it for me.

I used to feel embarrassed about this, but you know what? Dyslexia is a disability and those are nothing to be ashamed of.

* * *

About Alicia Kat Dillman

Indie author & illustrator Alicia Kat Dillman is a lifelong resident of the San Francisco Bay Area. Kat illustrates and designs book covers & computer game art by day and writes teen fiction by night. The owner of two very crazy studio cats and nine overfull bookcases, Kat can usually be found performing, watching anime, or hanging out in twitter chats when not playing in the imaginary worlds within her head. 

Daemons in the Mist

Seventeen year old Patrick Connolly has been hopelessly infatuated with Nualla for years but he is all but invisible to her. Until, that is, he rescues her from a confrontation with her ex. Little does Patrick know he’s just set off a dangerous chain reaction that will thrust him into a world of life-altering secrets and things that shouldn’t exist, because the fog and mist of San Francisco are concealing more than just buildings.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Write for Children? Here's What You Can Do for School Librarians--and What School Librarians Can Do for You

School librarians don't just help kids find great books. They help  children's book authors find readers too.

Last year at the New Jersey SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) annual conference, I attended a class called “Minding Your Own Business.” The class was on the one thing all of us who write for children want to know: how to make money as a children’s book author.

The instructor, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, explained that the real money isn’t made by selling children’s books, even if you’re lucky enough to get a couple of picture books traditionally published every year. No, the real money is to be made by doing other things, particularly school visits.

Sudipta--who has written numerous picture books, including Pirate Princess and Chicks Run Wild--informed us that she went to two conferences for educators every year, one in New Jersey, the other in California. Getting just two school visits was enough to pay for her entire trip to the Golden State.

After hearing her speak, I put out a new school and library edition of Dan Quixote: Boy of Nuevo Jersey, with discussion questions in the back. Because bullying is such an important topic in schools today, I focused my questions on bullying, peer pressure, friendship and individualism. 

Dan Quixote: Boy of Nuevo Jersey uses humor to show that friendship and respecting our differences can help kids overcome bullying and peer pressure. The bullying isn't sugarcoated, but it also isn't exaggerated. I wanted to show all kinds of bullying, but I also wanted to focus on the kinds of bullying most kids encounter, so that they would be able to relate to the main characters, Dan and Sandy.

The school and library edition of Dan Quixote: Boy of Nuevo Jersey has questions in the back to help teachers and librarians start a discussion with students about what they can do to prevent bullying.

Of course, success like Sudipta’s doesn’t happen overnight. She worked her way up to get into the position she’s in now, while most writers have to start at the bottom.

So where exactly do you start?

Sudipta told us that she charges differently depending on the school and its situation. It’s best to start with a few free visits to work out what you’re doing and what the best way to do it is.

 The first thing that will pop into most writers’ heads is that they should contact teachers they know, particularly the teachers who have taught their own kids. That’s not a bad idea. But there something even better that you can do: contact your local school’s librarian or library media specialist.

I met school librarian Valerie Dewhurst online, and she was eager to answer my question. As a school librarian, she wants to help children’s book writers promote their books. Valerie works in a school in Blackburn in the UK, but I think most of her answers apply to schools in the United States and other countries as well.

Here are my questions and Valerie's answers:

Q. How does a writer find out who the school librarian is, and what's the best way for the writer to contact the librarian? 

A. Writers can email or write to schools, asking for their introduction to be passed on--my personal view on this is to send to the librarian, because sometimes mail does not get passed on. A good way is to find their local SLA (the School Library Association in the UK) branch and get in touch with the secretary. She can inform all members of your work or new book. She can even ask you in to one of their events--getting you a big intro with members. I do this. 

Q. What's the minimum the writer can send? What are the best things a writer can send to make it as easy as possible for the librarian to promote the writer's work? 

A. There is no minimum--I would welcome one book or even a box of books. But again, it's down to each librarian's personal view on this. Finding and asking the branch secretary of groups is always best. 

Q. Should a writer send materials just once, yearly, or more often? What is the best time of year to submit material?

A. Termly, I think--my personal view. We can never get enough material in

Q. Should a writer send a lesson plan if he/she wants to get an author visit?

A. Oh yes, good idea—I would welcome this. I have just had an author in, and he emailed me his lesson plan after the event. We are using it now in library lessons as a follow up.

Q. Does a writer need a website? 

A. No, but it's a good idea these days to have one. 

Q. Does a writer need recommendations from other schools? 

A. Not always. If you’re good, anyway, you'll soon get recommended. I welcome new authors too, everyone deserves that chance to get out and get their work noticed. 

Q. Should the book have discussion questions in the back? 

A. I think this is a really good idea. I wonder if other authors have thought of this. 

Q. If a writer used to be a teacher or has a teacher's certificate, is that something that should be mentioned? 

A. Yes, of course. Why not? Kids love to sit and listen to authors talk and love to know about their past. They are always fascinated when the author says "I used to be a librarian." This goes down very well. 

Q. Does the book need to be on particular topics that fit the curriculum? 

A. No, all good books are welcomed. 

Q. What can writers do to make it as easy as possible for school librarians to promote our books as fully as possible? 

A. Send them their new books or even sample copies/reviews. Get their publisher to send out posters and bookmarks. Librarians are busy each day and don't always have time to make that contact. There are so many new books being published that it's hard to keep up. Hence I do lots of work from home in my own time.

Thanks, Valerie, for answering my questions. There's a lot that children's book writers and school librarians can do to help each other. Thanks for showing me--and my readers--the first steps. 

If you found this helpful or if you have any questions or suggestions you would like to make on this topic, I hope you'll leave a comment below.



Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Strands of Thought - Children's Author, Kai Strand: Three Times A Charm with Shevi Arnold

Kai Strand interviewed me about several things, including my reasons for choosing to become an indie author.

Strands of Thought - Children's Author, Kai Strand: Three Times A Charm with Shevi Arnold: Three Times a Charm is a weekly feature that spotlights authors, illustrators, bloggers, agents, editors or promoters from the publishing ...

Monday, June 04, 2012

How to Find a Great Book Cover Designer, and the 7 Rules You Need to Know to Work Together (without Driving Anyone Crazy)

Chances are you’re going to want to publish more than one book—and if you’ve put all that effort into finding a good designer the first time, you’ll want to have a good relationship with that designer so that he or she will want to work with you again. Part of this means knowing upfront how much everything will cost, what is and isn't included in the price, when the designer expects to be paid, and how long it will take the designer to finish the work.  

The first step to finding a great cover designer is to get recommendations, and the best way to do that is to hang out in places where other indie authors hang out. Most indie authors are proud to show off their covers—after all, it’s a great way to publicize your books—and are more than happy to tell you who designed them.

One of my favorite indie author hangouts is the ebook experiment group, which I started on Facebook. At the bottom of this post you’ll find links to the websites of different cover designers who have been recommended by indie authors I’ve met there and elsewhere on Facebook.

Twitter chats, like #IndieChat and #MBPA, are another good way to connect with indie authors and to discover book cover designers you might want to work with.

Once you get a recommendation, check out the designer’s website. Most cover designers today have a website, which should include a portfolio of previously published work. You need to see if the designer is really as good as the writer who recommended the designer says, and you also need to see if the designer’s work fits your particular book. Doctor Seuss, after all, might have designed great covers, but that doesn’t mean he would have been the right person to design the cover of a vampire novel, not unless the title of it is One Fang, Two Fangs, Red Fang, Blue Fang.

So what should you look for when you check out a recommended designer’s portfolio?

Read my two previous posts on cover design ("What You Need to Know About Cover Design Before You Indie Publish Your Noveland "Indie Publishers, What You Need to Know About Book Covers") to get an idea of what makes a great book cover great. In short, you should look for clarity, the right mood, something that fits in with the current bestsellers in your genre, a good hook, simplicity (as in no overwhelmingly distracting colors or other elements), and something that makes the book stand out among competing titles. Some of those requirements—particularly “standing out”—cost more, so you might want to stick with something that’s just professional and standard for the genre until you can afford something better.

Beyond what you should be looking for, you should also learn to recognize the things you need to avoid. The guest blog post I wrote for Indies Unlimited (Cover Basics, Part II) might help you there. It’s an uncharacteristically snarky, but very funny, post on the things I think but don’t say when I see badly designed covers. Hopefully it will give you a laugh or two, as well as an idea of what not to do.  

Okay, so let’s say you’ve gotten some recommendations, checked out several websites, and found a designer whose work you like. The fonts and images are clear and can’t be misconstrued. (I saw one with what appeared to be a phallic symbol on the cover, which later turned out to be a very strange, stylized Red Riding Hood. Unless you’re writing erotic fiction, this is not a good thing.) The mood (dark, humorous, playful, sexy, etc.) fits the mood of your book. The designer has experience designing books in your genre. The covers you found on the designer’s website had a good hook, one that made you want to open the book and start reading. The covers are simple, in that everything in them tells you something about the story you couldn’t get from the title alone, and nothing is redundant or distractingly overwhelming. It’s contemporary, and not hopelessly outdated. And—if you can afford something special—the cover isn't like one you’ve seen a million times before, one that could fit half the books in the same genre. The price also fits your budget. Great! Now what?

Most designers will indicate on their websites how they want to be contacted, so contact the designer in that way. First find out if the designer is open to working on your project, how long it will take, and how much you can expect to pay and when. Be aware that it might take an in-demand designer several months to finish your project, and allow for that time in your publication schedule. Also be aware that the many designers expect to get paid partially, or even fully, upfront. Some charge for edits. Some don’t. It’s best to have everything clear in writing from the start so that there are no misunderstandings.

Before I tell you how to work with a cover designer without driving yourself—or the cover designer—crazy, let me explain why that’s something you really want to do.  

I’m a writer, but I’m also an illustrator. As an illustrator, I have worked with so many difficult clients that it has put me off working for individuals altogether. I love working with magazines and newspapers, but you probably couldn’t convince me to design your book cover. I’ve been burned too many times.

You don’t want to do that, because chances are you’re going to want to publish more than one book—and if you’ve put all that effort into finding a good designer the first time, you’ll want to have a good relationship with that designer so that he or she will want to work with you again. Even if you decide to work with another designer, that second designer might wonder why you switched designers, contact the first designer, and discover you’re not an easy person to work with. You don’t want to be that kind of client. You want to be the kind of client a designer loves working with, so that your designer will not only want to work with you again but will give you good recommendations for other designers if for some reason that designer can’t help you the second time around.  

That takes care of the “why” regarding not driving the designer crazy. Now let’s look at the “how.”

7 Rules for Working with 
a Book Cover Designer

1. Get everything in writing. If you’re getting a custom-made cover, get everything in writing so you know exactly what you’re paying for, how much it will cost, when you have to pay, and when you can expect to get your finished artwork. Most designers charge at least partially upfront. Some include edits in the price, and some charge extra for them. You’ll need some of this information in writing if you choose to buy a premade cover, but there’s less of a hassle involved when you can’t make changes, like you can with a custom-made cover.

2. Be clear with your instructions from the start. I once knew a newspaper manager who could babble on for an hour without anyone understanding what it was he wanted. No one can give you what you want if you can’t say what it is you want. Be clear. Let the designer know a little bit about your book, like its title, genre, intended audience, mood, and basic plot. Do not drive the designer crazy with too many details.

3. Don’t expect Bloomingdale’s at Wal-Mart prices. While it’s important to have a clear vision, it has to fit the designer’s abilities and your budget. You might want a cover that looks exactly like the cover of the latest bestseller, but some of those are painted by illustrators who work a month or more on that one illustration and charge thousands of dollars. Others require hiring a studio, a photographer, a costume designer, models, and more. Like the Rolling Stones song goes, “You can’t always get what you want…”  Adjust your vision to fit the designer you’ve chosen. Don’t try to change the designer to fit the cover you have in your head. That never works out.

4. Ask questions. One of the best things you can do is ask the designer for input. Maybe the designer has great ideas that never would have occurred to you. Or maybe the designer has made certain design choices you don’t understand. Don’t pretend to know things you don’t, and don’t be embarrassed to ask.

5. Respect the designer. Realize the designer is a professional and trust him or her to make the right choices for your book. If the designer isn’t a professional, you shouldn’t hire him or her.

6. Be professional. Be courteous, pay on time, and value the designer’s time, work, and talent. For example, some designers don’t charge for edits, but that doesn’t mean you should push it. There’s no justification for more than one edit, two tops.  It’s possible the designer might come up with a terrific cover concept that doesn’t exactly fit what you have in your book. Maybe the cover has an extreme close-up of a brown eye, and you’ve described your character as having blue eyes. Just how important is the character’s eye color? Does the entire story revolve around it? If so, you should have mentioned it in your brief description of the story. If it isn’t, consider that it’s easier to search your manuscript for blue eyes and replace them with brown eyes than it is for the designer to go back to the drawing board to make those brown eyes blue. You can ask the designer how much trouble it would be to make that change, but only if you’re paying for a custom cover and this is your first edit. I don’t think anything drives me crazier than a client who keeps asking for changes after changes, mostly because that client doesn’t really know what he or she wants or how to communicate it.

7. Give credit where credit is due. Ask the designer how he or she would like to be credited in your book, and make sure you let other indie publishers know what a great job your designer did.

The two most important words to remember are clarity and respect. Ask questions so you have a clear idea of what you can expect, and communicate those expectations clearly. You are a writer, after all, and the Internet is a written medium. There’s no reason why a writer should have a difficult time communicating clearly online. And try to respect that the designer is a professional, one who has studied and worked hard to get to where he or she is in the profession. You wouldn’t tell your doctor what you think it best for your body. You would tell your doctor what’s wrong and ask for his professional opinion. Tell the designer about your book, and ask that designer for his or her professional opinion. Some of the worst designed covers I have ever seen were created by designers who were trying to follow the writer’s detailed instructions. The writer was probably happy with the finished result, but probably not as happy with his or her sales. Treat the designer like a professional, and the designer will see that you too are a professional.

And finally, be flexible. Designers aren’t mind readers. They can’t give you exactly the cover concept you have in your head. But if you’re flexible and clear about what you want, you might get something even better.

* * *

And now, here’s a list of cover designers other writers I know have been happy with. Some charge less, and some more. I’ve only listed the more expensive designers I think are worth the extra money. This is by no means a complete list, but it is a good place to start. If there’s another cover designer you’d recommend, I hope you’ll tell us about him or her and leave a link in the comments below.  

  • Dara England has decent premade ebook covers starting as low as $18. These are particularly suited to romance and historical fiction, but you’ll find some YA and paranormal covers in there too. She offers both premade and made to order e-book covers, and her prices are quite affordable:

  • I was really impressed by a friend's book cover, and this is the place that did it: Right now covers are just $99. These are first-rate covers at a fraction of the cost.

  • Carl Graves (cover designer, reasonable rates) website: Client list includes Alexander Sokoloff, Barry Eisler, Erik Lynd, J.A. Konrath, Jack Kilborn, James Swain, L.A. Banks, Lee Goldberg, and Tobias Buckell.

Of course, if you do have the skills and experience to design your own book cover or for some reason you still don’t want to hire a professional, here are some good places to look for images that could look good on your cover and don’t cost a lot:

Friday, June 01, 2012

Looking for a great summer read? How about a bittersweet, teen romantic ghost story?

I'm excited to announce that my latest YA novel, Ride of Your Life, is now available on Kindle and Nook and from the iBookstore! This is the story of Tracy Miller, a teenage girl who dies in a theme-park fire and meets the love of her life thirty years after her own death. This bittersweet romantic ghost story was inspired by a true event: the Great Adventure Haunted Castle fire that killed eight teenagers in 1984. I think Ride of Your Life is the most romantic ghost story since the movie Ghost, but I hope you'll download a free sample so you can decide for yourself: