I hate to admit it but I really do judge a book by its cover. I’ll still read any book, but it’s always the good looking ones that catch my eye first. And quite often, I get jealous because I wish my books could have covers like these… so I get into a bit of fantasising. ‘Say I get published, I hope they find an awesome artist for the cover illustration… but man, that’s ages away! I wish I could have something right now!’
Then I thought: what’s stopping me?
I reckon a little premature fantasising can be healthy for you. It’s hard to keep motivated throughout a writing project, especially for something as big as a novel. We need all the motivation we can get! Sometimes having a cover for the books we’ve spent so much time and love on is all we need to see on a bad day. It doesn’t have to be the one or even a good one. It’s just something tangible, that’s all. Something you can print out and stick over your desk, waiting for you to put some pages in it. If you’re into self-publishing, you’re probably on the lookout for a cover anyway, so why not get started early? Plus, it can be fun!
So how do we go about putting a face to our beloved books?
Well, picking up a pencil (or tablet pen) could be a start! Especially if you’re an artist or have a vivid idea of what you want to see. The best part about designing the cover yourself is that you get to call all the shots. You don’t even need to be a particularly good artist to do this. It’s just a spot of fun that may or may not be seen by anyone other than yourself. Throw yourself into it! Get abstract and make a montage of magazine clippings; make a newspaper wrap-around; dig up your childhood drawings. Tap into that other spectrum of creativity.
If you’re not into DIY, maybe you can commission an artist you admire to design the cover for you, or draw an illustration you could then format into a cover. I for one am keen on commissioning an artist to draw some portraits of my characters for reference. I’m a regular browser on deviantART, a site where artists share their works. There are heaps of people doing commission work out there. It’s up to you to find an artist whose style you like, and whose price fits in your bracket – because trust me, the range is huge! Are you looking for landscape or portraits? Symbols? Realism or photography? How much are you willing to pay? How will you describe what you want? All the research will pay off when you have a shiny new cover on your wall!
Another option I recently discovered is purchasing pre-made book covers. This means that someone has made covers of their own choosing and are selling the design for a set price. Once you buy a cover, they will edit the title, author’s name and any additional text at your request. It takes only a few days (most of the time) and voila! Instant book cover! The downside is that you’re looking through covers that are already made rather than ones you tailored yourself. You might not find one that’s perfect for your book – I know I haven’t. I’d encourage you not to be disheartened though. Don’t settle for the cover that looks okay and goes pretty well with the story, but is just missing that tiny detail you can’t put your finger on. Wait for the artist to put more covers out, or pay a bit more for them to design one just for you if they offer that option. Browse around and find a couple of cover-makers you like. Pay more attention if you are looking for a cover you can put on your book and sell to the public; good artists will use paid-for stock images that are licensed for creative use. You don’t want to pay for a cover that infringes on copyright! Also, check if the cover is made for e-books or physical printing – different resolutions give different results. I personally love Go On Write by humblenations. I flick through it whenever I’m restless and dream about one day finding the one staring back at me.
I’m still on the hunt but you guys will be the first to know if I ever find that perfect book cover. I know it’s out there somewhere!
Do you already have a cover for your book? Or would you rather wait until publication to see what you get? What kind of ideas do you have for the ideal book cover?
Yesterday, I went to bed a little earlier than usual (that is to say, while it was still p.m.). Lights were out, blankets perfectly arranged and alarm set for an early writing start. Perfect. I closed my eyes.
Thirty seconds later, a teensy detail about my story lit up against the darkness of my eyelids. I frowned. I can’t be bothered getting up. I’ll remember it. It’s just one little thing. I’ve memorised whole essays before. Easy.
This is a classic scenario. Haven’t we all had this before? ‘Yes Mum, I’ll vacuum later. Oh, we need to buy some toothpicks. I think my main character’s uncle should have a peg leg.’ Most of the time we tell ourselves we’ll remember these minor things – because they are minor. We tend to remember the really big things. But if it’s just something small, we’re sure it’ll occur to us as we get up to writing the scene. We’ll know to include that wonderfully witty dialogue we thought up while waiting to pay for our toothpicks. Sometimes we do remember it and we’re reassured of our mental health. Other times?
Well, let’s just say that we are creatures capable of being distracted from hunger and bursting bladders. We don’t. stop. thinking.
Write it down, everyone says. Carry a notebook, leave a voice memo on your smartphone, write it on the back of your hand, on index cards, on shopping receipts and, in my case, on napkins. It’s really basic advice, expounded to the point of irritation. But I really can’t stress it enough.
I was inconsistent about recording my ideas for so many years and it cost me. I was lazy. But because Camp NaNoWriMo is coming up and I’m schooling myself into a good writing habit, I dusted off my notebook and put it on my bedside table. Just in case. When that plot bunny ran wild while I was about to sleep, I grumbled, turned on the light and scribbled it down. Then I went back to a blissful sleep. Except, of course, it happened again. So I repeated the process, albeit drowsily and reluctantly.
But convincing you to take notes isn’t why I’m writing this post.
See, I had an epiphany as I was writing down those pesky thoughts in the middle of the night. It was about why it was so important to write your ideas down on the spot – and not just to stave off dementia.
It’s because, when that awesome idea first falls from the sky, it gives us a one and only inspirational moment for that idea – a creative window. Each idea has its own window, that only exists at that moment. It won’t stay open for long. Once it’s closed, you will never have the same epiphany for that idea again. Why?
Because everything after that becomes a memory. If you wake up the next morning with the plot bunny thankfully still with you, you are actually remembering that creative window. If, sadly, you forgot the idea overnight then you will just remember that you have to remember something. So chances are, you will not realise the idea with the same freshness again.
In other words, your first experience of a particular idea or thought only happens once in a lifetime.
As with everything else in life, wouldn’t you naturally want to capture that moment?
At least, that was the conclusion I came to (while in PJs and feeling dumb about my silly brain’s timing).
Have you had triumphant moments where you actually remembered the list of things you were thinking of, and wrote them down? It feels good, doesn’t it? For me, it’s a great relief. But it also feels rushed. I’m paying less attention to each point in my hurry to get the rest out. It feels like a burden off my chest. But writing is supposed to be something I enjoy. Hmm.
Another reason to get your ideas down immediately is because your mind is probably more engaged. The window is at its widest. While you write down that one idea, you might suddenly know how to tie it in with everything else, or snap up another idea. Your planning may move along faster. Of course, you can still do this elaboration afterwards, whenever you like. Just pray that it does not happen while you are trying to remember it for later. Just imagine: thinking about idea A and realising ‘hey, this leads into idea B and that character and wow, it parallels idea C here with – omg, I just came up with the best sentence to end the chapter on and-‘
Yeah. It happens. To me, at least. It goes both ways. Linked ideas make it easier to recall because they are related. On the other hand, forget one detail and the whole thing may fall apart.
So please, please, please write down your awesome ideas if you’re not certain you’ll remember it later. If not for future reference, then perhaps for the special ‘once in a lifetime’ experience. I admit I’ve got random notes all over the place. They’re in my Scrivener project, my notebook, err… another notebook, napkins, my iTouch, uni lecture notes, shower door (bad idea; steamed over and I ended up having to painstakingly remember what I’d written). The super quick ones, the ones that help me the most, are actually the ones at the bottom of the Word document I’m working on. I write down dialogue, ideas and reminders for future scenes in the chapter, even if I’ll be up to them in the next two minutes. These scattered ideas probably aren’t the best solution. I forget what I’ve written down, where I’ve put them, when I need them. I’m working on it. But it’s quite nice when I’m scrolling through these places and am surprised by what I’ve written. Then I remember writing it, remember the special moment that idea came to me. And it feels good. Now I can open the window whenever I want.
Of course, I’ve successfully remembered ideas without writing them before (yippee!!). Yes, there were times where I wanted to write them down but literally had no way of doing so. And a big fat yes to having forgotten things. I don’t know how many but even one is one too many.
I’m always saying that all writers are different. It’s a wonderful thing. So do things your own way! Fold a paper crane if it helps you remember. Memorise it if you know you can. Tell someone else to remember it for you (so you have someone to blame if both of you forget). But the next time you’re visited by a plot bunny – or any thought – just try, once, to hold onto that moment the way you would the last ten seconds of December 31st.
We’re having once in a lifetime moments every second of every day, if you think about it. It’s impossible to capture all of them. I’m going to treasure the few that I can :)
P.S. That night was one of the best and worst sleeps I’d ever had.
“Hook,” they say. “Pull the reader headfirst into your story. Keep them there. Give them a reason to stay scrunched in that uncomfortable position with desperate pins and needles, just to keep turning the page.”
“Already one step ahead of you,” we want to reply smugly. We all love to think that our stories have that particular wow factor.
But sometimes we can be uncertain. We might need proof. Proof that we’re on the right track, that our story flows, that we’re covering all bases – proof for whatever other neuroticisms we writers occasionally suffer from.
Seeing as we’re writers and all, I can predict that quite a few of you favoured ‘English/Arts’ subjects over ‘Maths’ subjects at school. Essays, comprehension questions, creative writing came naturally. Algebra, calculus, geometry… nyyyeaahhh. Wasn’t… too… bad… Not my forte, for sure, but I did appreciate some things.
For example, I liked getting a question right. Simple as that. But because I knew there was a definite answer that would either get me a mark or none, hitting the nail on the head was reliably satisfying. Maths concepts are much more ‘black and white’ than ‘Arts’ ones. When marketers grapple at our sleeves, chances are they’ll have numbers slathered everywhere. “25% more nutrients”, “Supplies 50% of your daily calcium intake” and don’t forget that infamous “50% off storewide”. It’s a world of numbers.
Maybe that’s what we need sometimes – just a few numbers. Not too much, lest we do our creative minds in. But just a little; some simple figures or graphs that we can market to ourselves as ‘proof’.
I came up with the idea of using graphs a few months ago. I think I’d read somewhere that a writer would rate each of their scenes on a scale, depending on how ‘exciting’ it was. I decided to do the same thing but also threw in an easy line graph using Excel. Then, as I was writing this post, I came up with another use and realised that there are many different possibilities out there. Today I’m going to share ideas about two of them: action ratings and character/story arc/location proportions.
I’ll also provide downloads of sample Excel spreadsheets for you to get started. Ready? Set go!
Many things can keep the reader stuck in your book. Characters are a big one, plot another. The flow of a story is more subtle, but equally important. Have you ever read a book with an interesting plot or premise, but didn’t feel satisfied with the story itself? Maybe it was too slow in some parts, or the climax happened too suddenly without suspense. Perhaps it was lacking character development, or the events were just strung up too tightly throughout the book without a break, to the point you felt tired for the characters.
Stories go through different stages of action. Ordinary life scenes are low action but key to subtle character development, and can be spiced up by some info-dropping. Climax scenes should really feel like the climax. Then there’s the transitions between.
First decide on a legend – your ratings. What is a 1? What constitutes a 7? What’s the difference between a 9 and a 10? Write it down somewhere.
Rate each chapter (or scene if you prefer) with an action rating. Overall, is it a high tension chapter or a build up to greater things? Is it completely unnecessary filler?
This is an example I made just then. (Don’t mind my legend too much. It’s a first draft that works for my story/writing style – yours is welcome to be different).
Using a graph like this you can clearly keep track of how ‘interesting’ each chapter is. If your climax isn’t a 10, there’s a problem. If you have too many <4 chapters, your story could be moving along too slowly. If you admit you have a 1, does that scene need to be there? Can you bump it up to a 3? It might be all it takes to keep your readers reading.
A healthy graph would look similar to the ones I posted previously as examples: a W structure with peaks and recovery periods. It also depends on your genre. A mystery crime novel would spend a lot of time in the high numbers. A chicklit might be lower range. Even though I am writing an action fantasy series, I am a heavily character-focused writer; this is why I have a rating for character development. This is why it is important to have your own legend scale, tailored for your story and your writing style.
Download link to my sample action ratings Excel spreadsheet (97-2003 compatible): Action ratings
Note: You can update each chapter’s ratings as you go. The graph should update live.
If your story has a broad cast of characters, they will typically range in importance. You might have several main characters, lead supporting characters, background characters and passerbys. It’s hard to remember everyone.
You might want to know the proportion of time you spend on your main characters. You may have two main characters – do you spend more time on one? Was that your plan? If you’ve decided you want a refreshing scene with some lesser seen characters, are you sure the ones you pick are lesser seen? Are your ‘rising star’ characters actually not in enough scenes to feel like they are meeting the role?
Likewise, story arcs work the same way. Typically a novel has subplots. They could happen in parallel. Some are important, some are less so. Spending too much time on a small subplot can decrease the significance of your main plot.
Again with location. Do you spend too much time in one place? Are you spending too little time in too many places? Does the main location receive enough exposure to come across as the main location?
To manage this, I thought of using either a pie or doughnut graph. I went with the latter in honour of Homer Simpson.
It’s pretty obvious who my main character is, right? Yet the top 3 characters are not my main 3 characters. Misleading? Flynn, Arven and Eleanor are actually my main characters – in the long run. This is a rough estimate of the proportions (not the exact number of scenes) that I can currently see happening in Book 1. These proportions will change as the story progresses. That’s okay. What’s important is that I know I’m on the right track; that by the end I haven’t completely neglected poor Tristan, who is a supporting character – and a cowardly one who runs from action, too – because it’s easy for me to write him off as a background character when he’s actually really good buddies with Flynn.
This obviously won’t work if you cram your entire cast into the graph. Think Game of Thrones – not going to work. Even Harry Potter might be stretching it. This graph is ideal only for, say, a maximum average of 10 characters. It depends on your needs. You can create an entry for ‘Others’ and accumulate everyone else’s appearances in there. You could create two separate graphs: one for main characters, another for supporting. The freedom is yours.
I used characters as an example but like I mentioned, this can just as easily be done with subplots/arcs, locations and anything else you think could make use of such a graph. Play around!
Download link to my sample graph Excel spreadsheet (97-2003 compatible): Proportions graph
There are a range of other ways you can use graphs to aid your writing. I’ll post more ideas if I think of any. Experiment and see what works for you. It might be just what you needed or the worst thing you’ve ever attempted. You never know until you try. I hope someone found this post helpful! If you need any help with the spreadsheets, leave a comment and I’ll be happy to help.
Have you used a similar technique before? Yay or nay? Going to try it out? What are your graph ideas?
I’m a neat freak in certain areas. These areas do not include my room or any other physical living spaces. I live in a pig sty. But put me in front of my writing – BAM. “Should I type in a serif font today? Oh no, I still don’t know what’s happening in Book 1. I must start from the top and work this mess out… Oh. Em. Gee. Is that a double space?!”
Yeah, it can get messy.
Here is what I’ve realised: If I start something neat, it must stay neat. It means I will pretend I can remember that tiny detail instead of marring my perfect page with a disgusting correction. It means I am limited by myself. It means I can’t brainstorm properly.
In comes the mindmap.
I’m sure we’ve all used a mindmap in the past. If not, you’ve at least scorned it. I’ve always used them; not religiously, just occasionally. I used them in high school, when I brainstormed theses for my English essays. I used them when I came up with new plot bunnies. I used them to jot down random world-building notes.
So you can see it’s quite a facepalming moment that I hadn’t realised earlier just how indispensable a simple mindmap can be to my writing.
See, I’ve been stuck for a few months now. The story is in my head. I know what I want to write; I can picture the scenes, hear the characters, feel the atmosphere. Yet it just won’t translate onto paper. I got up to chapter 4, then decided to scrap everything and restart. Now I’m back in the planning stage. There’s usually a big pressure in this step. A good plan can save your story. A bad one can send your characters scurrying around your fictional world for a plot.
If anyone else finds the planning stage difficult, this is my tip of the week: go back to the basics and try a mindmap. I can tell you now – it’s a messy process. And that’s exactly what you want.
Half the time we get stuck because there is just too much going on in our minds. We’re only human! Empty those thoughts and ideas onto a mindmap. It’s best to do it with pen and paper, so you don’t completely erase the things you cross out. Start with a main idea in the middle; it could be the title of your story, an event, a character – anything. Just don’t leave it blank. Your thoughts are like a tangle of yarn; you need to give it something tangible to wrap around.
Next step: dump. Branch from that main idea with a secondary idea. It could be ‘WORLD’, ‘THEMES’, ‘POWERS’, etc. If you are using your mindmap to outline your story, start with a major inciting event – or a story arc. It doesn’t even have to be the first scene of your story. Keep the idea general, just specific enough that you know what you’re talking about. Then branch off from that idea and let loose. Surround it with all the details, big and small, that have been plaguing your mind. Make connections. Draw arrows. And, more importantly: reach for more paper.
Let me clarify: it is perfectly fine to be messy with your mindmaps. They are not organisational tools. They are dumps of information to help orient yourself. Afterwards, organise away!
Mindmaps won’t make or break your writing process. I know for a fact that it doesn’t work for everyone. I also know that the mindmap is the first tool some writers draw on – it’s the vanguard of their writing. As always, everyone has their own styles. But if you’ve exhausted all your options and am still stuck on square one, try mindmapping. On days where you just can’t write, try mindmapping. You might just be surprised.
I’m going to finish off by showing you guys how I went about mindmapping for my fantasy series. It was hard work, I’m telling you! My main problem was that I didn’t know what order events should happen, or how they would relate to each other. Three hours of mindmaps, 5 A4 pages later, I felt pretty awesome.
Another ‘messy’ way I’ve recently adopted to help with my writing is scrapbooking. Basically, I collect all the information I have and pop it into a physical folder. It’s surprisingly motivating. I’ll make a post about this in a couple of weeks, so stay tuned if you’re interested!
Do you use mindmaps to help you write? Love ’em or hate ’em? What’s your planning success story?