Putting the Cart Before the Horse

After I wrapped up the cover art design for Wrong Side of the Grave, Stephanie Draven mentioned on Twitter that my experiences were making her wonder if packaging shouldn’t come before writing the book. Or, put more bluntly, whether I was foolish to be spending time and money on cover art for books I haven’t written yet and could, in theory, fail to finish. (ETA: I don’t think Stephanie actually meant that at all. I’m totally joking!) Since I’ve wondered the same thing (especially since I have a hard drive absolutely cluttered with unfinished manuscripts), I thought I’d talk a little more about the thought processes that drove me to commission the cover for Incarnate and fritter away three days on the cover of the prequel.

The primary reason I commissioned the cover art for Incarnate, as I’ve mentioned before, is that the artist, Nathalia Suellen, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Knowing Nathalia as I do now, I’m sure she would have done the artwork for me at the same price she quoted me six months from now, but at the time, I was more than a little worried that if I waited, I wouldn’t be able to afford her.

But I’ll admit that there was a little more to it than that. Specifically, it’s precisely because I have all those unfinished manuscripts littering my hard drive that I decided to get the cover art done now. You see, I need motivation. And there are few things more motivating when it comes to finishing a book than a) having spent money upfront on it and b) a gorgeous cover. And because what Nathalia did for Incarnate is honestly so much more perfect and wonderful than I ever dreamed, I’m truly motivated to finish writing the book (even if I am a little intimidated by the prospect of having to write a story that lives up to the cover).

Okay, so what about Wrong Side of the Grave? After all, the idea of doing a free short story as a prequel to Incarnate only occurred to me last week! And I’ve already got cover art? What am I, crazy?

Well, I am crazy, but that’s a separate issue :).

Here’s the reason I did the cover now instead of waiting until the story was written: I found an image on iStockPhoto that was practically perfect.

But why was a looking in the first place? Honestly, mainly for inspiration. I didn’t have a clear plot in mind for the prequel, just some pretty vague ideas about exploring my heroine’s backstory in a little more detail, and pictures can often spark ideas. And then I found this near-perfect image of a woman standing next to a gravestone. The model even looked startingly like the model on the cover of Incarnate. It was kind of like kismet. The image itself wasn’t cheap, but it was something I knew I could work with even with my very rudimentary graphic design skills.1 Knowing that sometimes artists take images off iStockPhoto, I didn’t want to wait until the story was written (or even started) to buy it, and of course, once I bought it, I had to go ahead and do the design, just to see if I could do something that looked reasonably professional on my own.

So, do I think it’s a good idea, in general, to do the “packaging” for a book before actually writing it?

Well, first of all, this obviously isn’t even an option if you’re not self-publishing the book, unless you want to spend the time and money on creating cover art solely for your own use. It’s a rare publisher that lets the author provide the cover art. But if you find having an image to be motivating or helpful, then by all means, go for it.

But if you are self-publishing, I do think having the cover art (as well as the cover copy) earlier rather than later is good thing. Maybe not THIS early–I’m obviously listing books on my website that won’t be out for a minimum of six months, which is very far in advance–but it’s certainly not a bad thing to begin letting your readers know about upcoming releases earlier rather than later, and I think cover art gives readers something visual to help them imagine the story. (Just as, indeed, that visual can give the author inspiration for the writing process.)

In the past, I used to say that the way I wrote a book was “Title, Hook, Book.” That is, I usually come up with the title first, which then suggests a story for which I write the cover copy. I’m pretty religious about writing cover copy before I write the book. I’ve found in the past that if I don’t do this, I often discover a fatal flaw in the story idea that prevents me from continuing it. (If I can’t write a blurb for a story, it almost inevitably means I have insufficient conflict.) Only after I have the title and the hook figured out do I actually write the book. (By the way, I have even more titles/hooks for unfinished books on my hard drive than I have unfinished manuscripts. I may start selling them one of these days…)

But now, I’m thinking maybe my process is going to becoming “Title, Hook, Cover, Book”. I’ll have to see how it works when it comes to writing these two books, but if it goes well, I may actually decided that packaging should come before writing. At least for me.
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1Actually, calling them “skills” is too kind. Here’s how I actually put together the cover. I use a free graphics program called GIMP. I understand how to use about 5% of its capabilities. I don’t really understand how to make all the layers separate, so everything I paste into the image becomes part of the main layer, which means if I need to change anything, I have to start over. I know this is not efficient, but it hasn’t bothered me enough that I’ve bothered to learn. I am absolutely clueless to how to insert text directly into the image in GIMP, so I use Word’s Word Art feature to create blocks of text as images and paste them in. (Lucky for me, they come over with transparent backgrounds.) This is how I did my Romance Trading Cards, too. It’s a totally lame process, but it works.

How Fast Can You Write a Book?

In the past few days, I’ve either been involved in or eavesdropped on (although I guess if it’s posted publicly on the internet, it’s not exactly eavesdropping) several conversations that revolve around the question of how long it takes or should take to write a book that’s worthy of publication. Some people seem to feel that authors who release multiple books in a single year are “rushing” their content to market, either because their publishers are demanding it or because they feel that quantity is more important than quality when it comes to sales and promotion.

Similarly, I’ve seen it implied, if not stated outright, that it should take about a year to write one single title (75k-120k) manuscript and that, if it takes less than that, the author must not be paying sufficient attention to detail. There seems to be a perception that the longer an author takes to write a book, the better that book will be. Of course, I’ve also seen the converse argument–that if an author is taking more than a year to write a single title manuscript, said author is probably a) a procrastinator (um, raises hand!), b) a perfectionist, or c) both.

So here’s the thing–the one categorical statement I can make about writing books is that no two people do it the same way or at the same pace. Some writers are fast drafters who can pump out 5,000 new words a day, then do numerous revisions. Others (like me and, I recently learned, a certain bestselling author by the name of Dean Koontz) write at a creepingly slow pace, trying to get every word right (or nearly right) on the first pass so that our revisions are minor and take less time. And then there’s everything in between. And no one way is “the right way.” I wouldn’t presume to tell authors who write quickly and revise more heavily that they’re doing it wrong. Equally, I don’t want to be told that my way is wrong because the only way to wind up with a “good” book is to revise and revise and revise (that maxim “Writing is rewriting” makes me insane).

All of that said, if you write on a regular schedule, whether you’re a drafter-reviser or a write-right-the-first-time kind of writer, you don’t have to write at a ridiculously fast pace to produce more than 100,000 publishable words in a year. I’m slow, but I average about 1,000 new words a day, 5 days a week. I do revise when I finish a manuscript, but it doesn’t take me as long to do my revisions as it takes me to write the new words. I can probably do revisions on 5,000 words as fast or faster than I can write 1,000 new ones. (I know lots of authors who are exactly opposite–they write new words much more quickly than they revise them. And there are no doubt some writers who are 1:1 writing:revising.)

So, assuming I only write new words 40 weeks out of the year, not including weekends (giving me 12 weeks for revisions, copy editing, vacations, and procrastination–my Waterloo!), that’s a minimum of 200,000 words a year. How many “titles” that results in depends on how the stories I’m telling break out and on how many of those words actually contribute to manuscripts that I finish. Since I have no active contracts binding me to finish any particular manuscripts, I have a tendency to poke at and then set aside a lot of stories, meaning I’m adding words that may someday be publishable, but aren’t yet because I didn’t finish.

But if all 200,000 words I wrote in a given year wound up in something I finished, that would mean that in a year, I could release roughly two single titles or three-to-four category-length novels, or 5-8 novellas, or some combination of those lengths. And I wouldn’t be “rushing” or doing slipshod work to achieve that (especially if, in a single year, I finished several manuscripts that I started in prior years).

Now, I realize that even 1,000 words a day is too a fast pace for some writers by the time they work in revisions and editing. Especially for writers who have a day job, families, etc., writing more than even a few hundred words a day may be too much. But for most professional, full-time writers, I suspect that two or possibly even three single-title books per 12-15 months is very, very doable and doesn’t require the author to cut corners or sacrifice quality for quantity. Will some be slower than that? Absolutely, and that’s fine, too.

So, how fast can you write a book? The answer is…it depends. It depends on what you mean by “a book”–short story, novella, category novel, single title novel. It depends on what the author’s goals and commitments are. And it depends on the individual author’s individual process. There’s no one true way or one true pace.

None of which is to say that some authors and publishers don’t put out books that aren’t really ready for prime-time. It’s just that I think it’s just as possible for a book that took five years to write/revise/edit to be “not good” as one that took five months. Monkeys with typewriters producing Shakespeare provided infinite time notwithstanding, some writers will never write a good book, no matter how fast or slowly they try to do it. And by the same token, some writers are so ridiculously talented and fast that they can release three or four novels a year and every one of them is brilliant (hello, Ann Aguirre).

What’s Your Point of View on Point of View?

Although I’m about to set it aside to dig into writing the second short story under my Spice Briefs contract, I’ve been working on a manuscript for the past few weeks that’s giving me fits on the issue of point of view and whether to go with third person or first person narration. Although I’m not going to “reveal” the plot here (because, shhhhh, it’s super secret, lol), I can tell you it’s urban fantasy (ghosts, angels, werewolves, etc.) set in London at the turn of the 20th century. There are romantic elements in the story, but it’s not a romance per se, and I envision at least a three-book series with this heroine as the protagonist.

I started out writing this in third person with the idea that I would tell the story from multiple characters’ POV, but now that I’ve gotten into the story a bit further, I’ve realized that the plot demands that certain information be parceled out to the reader in the same way it’s parceled out to the heroine. Because the other characters know things that I can’t reveal to the reader before the heroine learns them, I really can’t write from multiple characters’ point of view without “spoiling” it. (I suppose in theory I could write the other charactres’ POVs and just not let them reveal anything I don’t want the reader to know, but I am incredibly annoyed by this tactic when I encounter it in other books. If I’m in a character’s head, I want the narrator to share with me any relevant information that character knows, or I feel I’m being manipulated by an untrustworthy narrator.)

Now that I realize I’m going to write the whole book in ONE character’s limited POV (as opposed to multiple POVs and/or omniscient POV), I’m wondering if the narration shouldn’t be first person rather than third person. I can’t remember the last time I read a full-length novel that was narrated in third person from a SINGLE character’s point of view. It seems to me that writing in third person almost demands that the author present multiple points of view.

On the other hand, as much as I like writing (and reading) first person narration, I’m aware that a fair percentage of readers (and editors) dislike first person intensely. Given that I like the voice of the third person narration in the book I’m writing, I don’t want to change to first person just because I’m afraid someone will be annoyed by the lack of other characters’ POVs.

So, that’s my dilemma, and it’s made me really curious how you all feel about point of view and person. I’ve added a little poll below on the subject, but if you have additional thoughts, I’d love to read them in the comments.

[poll id=”7″]

P.S. Totally appropos of nothing in this post, I notice that Behind the Red Door is back on sale for the bargain price of $5.58 at Amazon. That’s cheaper than most mass market paperbacks, so this is a good time to buy :)!

Writing What You Don’t Know

I’m a little less than three thousand words into a new project, and already I’m angsting about its direction. Now, I’m always a trifle neurotic about whatever I’m writing, but usually the actual worrying about whether I’m “doing it right” waits a little longer than one chapter to settle in. The “OMG, what if this sucks?” anxiety normally sets in at around 10-15k.

I know why this is happening, though. It’s because this book ventures into territory I haven’t explored before–not just in writing, but in reading as well. I think I can say that the story revolves around vampires without revealing too much about the premise, so with that much in mind, I will admit my deep, dark secret: I don’t read vampires.

Oh, I’ve read some of the vampire classics, including the book I really think of as the definitive modern take on vampire life, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, and, of course, all of Emma Petersen‘s vampire romances (because she’s my best bud, critique partner, and awesome too boot), but in general, I’ve never been that interested in the vampire genre. I’ve never read either Stephanie Meyers or Charlaine Harris nor have I seen the movies/TV series based on their books. What’s more, I don’t intend on starting now.

I just heard your gasp of horror. But Jackie, if you’re going to write a vampire book, shouldn’t you read a lot of vampire books so you know the genre?

Well, yes, there’s something to be said for that approach. In general, I write the genres I like to read. I cut my romance-reading teeth on historicals and, therefore, when I started writing them, it was natural for me to write historicals. It’s what I’m familiar with and what I love as a reader, so of course, it’s where I went.

So, why not apply the same strategy to my foray into the vampire world? Mainly because, as much as I fear that my interpretation of the vampire genre will be either too dark or not dark enough, I worry even more about having my vision influenced by other writers and therefore “diluted” in some way. I don’t want the what I hope is my vampires’ uniqueness leached out by getting commingled with too many other people’s take on them.

Which is why I’m taking the scary step of writing what I don’t know. Yes, it’s risky and a little panic-inducing, but on the whole, I think it’s the right way to approach this project.

What do you think?

Worldbuilding: How Do You Do It?

The backstory to this post is that I have what I (and everyone I’ve shared it with) think is a really cool idea for a YA novel. At this point, it’s a concept without any real plot and, even trickier, requires me to build a non-existent, paranormal world, something I haven’t really ever done before. Some of my friends have encouraged me to just start writing and let the worldbuilding and plot come as I go, but I have a hard time doing that because for me, internal logic and consistency in worldbuilding is epically important. I simply can’t write the story until I have most of the details of how the world behaves and what it looks like.

The biggest problem I’m having with this whole worldbuilding gig, though, is that I really don’t know how other writers do it, so I have no idea how to go about it myself. I’m not the sort of writer who tends to outline stories, although I do consider myself more of a plotter than a pantser when it comes to writing. It’s just that instead of outlining the story on paper (which to me feels a little too much like writing the actual story, and then I find the process of actually writing it boring and redundant), I tend to work it out in my head and hold it there. This doesn’t mean I have every scene in mind when I start out or anything as regimented as that, but it does mean I have the major turning points sorted out and know what I’m working toward at each step along the way.

Sometimes, I think my inability to outline (which I’ve had since I was a kid in school; I always wrote the term paper first, THEN wrote the outline, even if the teacher demanded the outline be handed in before the term paper) is a shortcoming because it means I sometimes get stuck. The past couple of weeks have been “stuck” weeks. Every story I’m working on reached a point where I just wasn’t sure what should happen next. I knew what plot points I had to cover, but coming up with a scene that actually covered those point without being nothing but plodding exposition was driving me crazy.

I feel a bit the same way about my worldbuilding issue. I have some broad outlines and a few details, but I have no idea how to organize them into a clear, comprehensive “picture” of the world I want to write about. So, I’m asking authors out there (especially those who’ve got experience in writing paranormal stories) how they go about it. Do you jot things down as they come to you? Write a “bible?” Or just make it up as you go along?

I know there isn’t any one “right” way to do this. But having not done it before, I’d like to know what ways have been the right ones for other people.