Saturday, September 3, 2016

On designing a cover with 99Designs

Scott D Parker

We are always told not to judge a book by its cover, but come on, we all do. You know it. I know it. We can’t help it. When we’re scanning at any of our online bookstores, and looking at the thumbnails of all the covers, were not seeing the blurbs, nor any of the prose descriptions. And, unless the author is someone famous, you’re not even looking at the author name. What you’re looking at is the book cover.
And, when you’re an independent author as I am, a book cover is one of the make–or–break items. In fact, it might be the number one differentiator. If I am looking at a bunch of new books scheduled to be published this fall, I’mreally only making a judgment on the book by its cover.
So how do you get a good cover? Well, if you have any artistic talent and can manipulate the software, you do it yourself. And when I say software, I am not talking about Microsoft Paint. I am talking the high-end software. I subscribe to the Adobe suite which gets me Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe InDesign. There are other options, but those are the three that I use frequently. For all of my Western short stories--including the new one, "Mosaic Law," I created my own covers.
I designed the basic template and then filled in the gap with individual pictures drawn from stock images from such places like Shutterstock. But I’ve never considered something I personally designed to go into the cover of one of my novels.
I hire graphic designers. I had one guy—a former coworker—create the images for my first two novels based on my direction. Another friend of mine—ironically, also a former coworker—helped design my third novel, ALL CHICKENS MUST DIE. But when it came time to create book cover for the first Lillian Saxton novel, ULTERIOR OBJECTIVES, I wanted something different.
If you listen to a lot of these self-publishing podcasts like The Creative Penn or The Self-Publishing Podcast, you will likely hear advertisements for a website called After hearing about it for over a year and a half, I decided to give it a try. The first thing to know is that this is a contest. When you sign up for the service, you get to choose what level—bronze, silver, gold, and platinum—you want to use. Naturally, bronze is the cheapest and platinum is the most expensive. In addition, the number of graphic designers that could potentially submit a design based on your directions increases with the more cash you lay out.
After you decide on your level, you have to fill out a few forms. The first of which is the title of your contest. You want to make this title as eye-popping as possible considering this is a contest. I chose a few key action words and phrases. I wrote out a lengthy brief detailing what I would like to see, color schemes, and other things that inspired me. I also had a crude pencil sketch that I took a picture of and uploaded. I have to say that it’s a little bit nerve-racking when you push the save button and the contest launches. You don’t know how many designers are going to show up or even bother to submit designs.
The first day, a designer contacted me via private email and suggested that I make the contest private. The difference between a private contest and a public contest is pretty obvious. The public contest means that when a designer submits a potential cover, everyone can see the designs, and the possibility of plagiarism is evident. A private design contest gives the author the potential to have many different styles of cover designs without the artists being influenced by each other. In my case, with a pencil sketch and a detailed brief, I kept it as a public contest on this, my first experience.
The process was extremely easy. The website software pings the author to judge the designs via a star rating. And when it came time to select finalists, all I had to do was click on the designs I liked. They moved forward while everyone else did not. I was very pleased with the process, and I will certainly be using 99designs again in the future. I would certainly recommend them for anyone out there needs to have a professional book cover created but doesn’t know how, but doesn’t have the time, to do it themselves. They can also do logos, banners, and any other kinds of graphics you might need in your author business.
And the cover I received for my book? Fantastic! You’ll see it soon as I roll out the publication of ULTERIOR OBJECTIVES: A Lillian Saxton Thriller later this fall in the cover. Needless to say, it was exactly what I wanted.

Friday, September 2, 2016


I've been a big ball of stress. My big personal flaw is never feeling like I'm doing enough until I'm doing so much I'm crumbling under the weight of it. There's always that sweet spot where I have just enough to do to feel motivated and satisfied, but it passes quickly.

This leads to some strange bouts of self doubt. I am running a magazine and feeling like I'm not working on anything. Yesterday, though, I got a little TimeHop reminder that I published my first short story four years ago.

Four years! It was a much needed shot of perspective. I've actually accomplished a hell of a lot since I decided to start taking the writing thing seriously. I'm not going to get into listing all my publications and accomplishments (because when I see it all on paper it feels like very little again, and the drive to "do more" gets the better of me).

It wasn't a crime story, it was a love story, mostly. I worked on it for weeks, passing it back and forth with a good friend I've since mostly lost touch with. I found out it was going to be published while watching a Chinese Dragon show at the San Diego Zoo.

I got this tattoo the day it was published:

It's based on a line in the story, "A murder of crows was living inside me."

It was a big day, but it was only four years ago. Only. I gotta work on keeping that in mind.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Stuck in the Middle with You...

Most books are published for the entertainment of the middle class. There's nothing wrong with that, as they are the largest market. And at least in the United States, most people consider themselves middle class whether they are or not. But just because most readers and writers are middle class doesn't mean we don't get stories about the working class or those in poverty. We get a lot, good and bad. Much is "regional" as the city-centric would say, or rural noir, which can be great or it can wallow in squalor porn. No matter what the setting, all too often, the characters who aren't middle class are the villains, whether they be rich or poor.

Now, I like seeing a smug powerful fool get his or her comeuppance as much as the next reader, but this is a myopic view of the world. Not every trust fund baby is a psychopathic monster, and not every street kid wants to shoot you for your iPhone. The struggles of the middle class exist, but they are not universal. A car accident might ruin your day if you're financially stable, have good insurance, a job that understands when you're late, and so on. For people without those safety nets that many of us take for granted, a fender bender can make them jobless and homeless or put them in jail if they're on their way to see a probation officer. It can spiral their life out of control if they're driving thirty miles to the nearest methadone clinic, because we can't have pharmacies dispense the medication, which gets prescribed for non-addictive reasons from pharmacies all the time.

As Anatole France said, "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread." We think the playing field is level because we've always been on the pitcher's mound.

Why do I bring this up? I was reading The Jealous Kind, an excellent novel by one of my favorite authors, James Lee Burke. It has one misstep, when a somewhat sheltered teenager in the '50s not only knows all about illegal drugs but moralizes about it. If you've been around people who abuse opiates, or if you've taken them yourself, hopefully you don't buy the line that it's a moral failing. You don't take horse tranquilizers unless you are in some sort of pain, of the likes that I hope you will never experience. Now I don't condone Trainspotting as a lifestyle (choose life, yo) but neither will I sneer and tell them to 'just say no'. I find it a greater moral failing to assume you know how someone else got to where they are, than to ease your pain with a soporific substance. There are plenty of reasons not to use illegal drugs, I'm not here to argue it, but the no pun intended "high horse" attitude comes from a place of privilege, a place without misery. And if you need to feel better about yourself by denigrating those who succumbed to that misery when you didn't, you're hooked on another drug, sanctimony.

This can of course go the other way in crime fiction, when we care too much about "street cred." While I admire many writers who know crime first hand, writers deal in empathy, and while experience can help, it is not necessary. I don't look for blue collar backgrounds on jacket copy. Stewart O'Nan was an engineer, yet he writes some of the best stories about workers trying to get by, such as Last Night at the Lobster. I do look for characters who work for a living. One good example I read recently was Libby Cudmore's The Big Rewind, a hipster mixtape murder mystery set in Williamsburg; the main character is a temp who gets corralled into doing degrading odd jobs for her boss, which gave it the perfect verisimilitude to explain why she has time to sleuth around.

Another great recent use of class was in Megan Abbott's You Will Know Me, where the blue-collar parents of a gymnast prodigy struggle to give their daughter all the advantages that better-off parents can. They feel like frauds about to be exposed, and the tension is fierce and on point. Abbott grew up in the Detroit suburbs, but she knows noir--she has a PhD in it--and the class clash is often an integral part.

There's another book I won't name because I'm ruining the ending, where the sleuth slums with street kids and smokes pot laced with embalming fluid, but decides that the teenaged murderer of a pederast must serve his time rather than skip because... we demand justice for middle class victims, even if they molest teenagers. I threw the book at the wall, but I suppose that was honest to her character. She believed in the system, as a middle class kid; it had always served her well, why should that boy have something to fear from it?

What we do as writers is put ourselves in imaginary people's shoes; if they are always just like us, maybe we are squandering our ability. We should know our limitations and write what our heart tells us to write, but as the best crime fiction tells us, the heart may not always give the best advice. It might tell us to hate someone before we step into their shoes to see what stones we find.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Night Of

by Scott Adlerberg

It's been interesting reading the reactions to The Night Of.  Does anything provoke high expectations like a crime series, with a mystery at its core, that begins well?

The Night Of starts beautifully, and it had me hooked from the first episode. By the time I reached the conclusion of the last episode, well...

Can a single person be a hung jury?  A mixed reaction to the series is what I came away with in the end.

For starters, I'm glad I watched it and it played as compelling television. As you would expect of anything Richard Price has a hand in, the writing is sharp, precise, and detailed. The acting is excellent.  I loved the way it had a modulated tone throughout and those early scenes in the police precinct the night the police bring Naz in after the murder were gems. John Turturro's character was totally believable; even after countless courtroom dramas on film and TV, it's still rare to see the portrayal of a lawyer working at John Stone's grubby (but honest) level.  Lawyers almost always are shown as brilliant and very skilled or as fallen but seeking redemption (like Paul Newman in The Verdict).  Here we get an unglamorous working lawyer who hangs around the precinct picking up clients and who has advertisements for his services pasted up in subway cars.  

Stone's constant admonition to his clients to "say nothing" and "keep your mouth shut" is dead on, and so is the way he describes what happens in court.  He's less interested in what actually happened, in finding the truth, than in the presentation of a narrative.  As he puts it, the prosecution gets to tell their story, the defense tells their story, and the jury then decides which story it believes. The defense doesn't need to know what truly happened and may not even want to know. Having knowledge of the truth may not help the defense present its case at all. From the defense's point of view, the only thing that matters is what the jury hears and whether the defense can forge a narrative that sows doubt in the jury members' minds.  This is obviously what happens in every criminal case that goes to court, but again, it's seldom that you hear this point stated so bluntly in drama.   

I didn't mind that the last episode, in its 90 plus minutes running time, crammed in one or two late trial twists that damaged the carefully calibrated sense of realism.  And that the series ended on a somewhat ambivalent note was fine.  You're left strongly suspecting that one particular person was indeed the killer, but you don't know this for sure. Why should you? That's how a show that goes against the notion of certainty being an expected trial outcome should end.  

So what are my reservations?  Mainly, and I know I'm not alone here, it's in how the women characters are portrayed.  As others have pointed out, the show is in fact yet another crime drama where a woman's death kicks off a story about how that woman's death effects the lives of the main male characters.  I didn't get the sense that the victim, Andrea, was a seductress who lures Naz into a night of debauchery. It's clear he makes his choices in deciding to let her stay in his cab and then go with her to her house and then party with her. The choices he makes are on him.  But once Andrea is dead, she is, yes, pretty much a cipher. We learn next to nothing about her.  

And then there's the handling of these characters:

1) Naz's young attorney, who seems level headed and intelligent and does a good job presenting the defense's case until, inexplicably, she falls enough for Naz to kiss him in a prison jail cell and then smuggle drugs in to him.  This old saw of the woman professional who goes soft for a man (in this case going so far as to break the law for him and risk her career) comes out of left field and doesn't help anything in the story. Plus, after presenting a solid case that may give Naz a chance for acquittal, she pointedly ignores Stone's advice and puts Naz on the stand. This decision is a terrible one and winds up hurting her case.

2) The prosecutor, competent at her job but who in the last episode is painted in such a way that it seems she'd send a man she thinks may well be innocent to prison for a long time. The information she gets about the new lead comes before Naz's trial's ends, and when she hears about it, the look on her face, though somewhat ambiguous, indicates that she probably believes the new information. She makes no effort to pursue it until later, though, when much damage could have been done to Naz. So her main priority in life is her conviction rate, truth be damned?  She has to have believed the new information or she wouldn't easily let the jury's verdict stand and decline to re-prosecute. That prosecutors like this exist is no surprise, but in The Night Of it merely seems as if it's only the men, like Detective Box, doggedly pursuing the truth after his retirement, who have rectitude.

3) Of Naz's two parents, it's his mother who's the one who comes to think he may in fact have killed Andrea.  His father never wavers in his belief that his son is innocent.  The story could be written of course that both parents, or neither, or just the father, have their doubts about Naz, but in this case, it's the mother alone, which somehow seems of a piece with the slippery quality given to at least four (including Andrea) of the women characters in this story.

Anyway, despite my reservations, I don't feel I wasted my time watching The Night Of.  I hope HBO renews the series for a second season, preferably with a new case.  The second season of Criminal Justice, the British series The Night Of is based on, centers around a pregnant wife and mother who murders her abusive husband, a successful barrister. Maybe HBO will follow that story line next. It sounds promising, so let's see.  In the meantime, actually, I may go watch that second season, the British version, on Hulu.  

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Thief of Time

The life of a writer can be one of extremes. There's the hyper-socialization at events like Boucheron, and the countless hours of tucking oneself away to live in your head and flesh out the story you're trying to tell.

I think that blogs were initially a great experience for writers because they enabled us to connect, and that made the process of writing a little less lonely at times.

However, back when blogs were all the rage and everyone except Dennis Lehane had one to three they were posting on regularly, it was easy to get sucked down into the black hole of time theft.

And it's still easy to do that, just in other ways.

While I appreciate the support and motivation that comes from other writers at time, there came a point this summer when Marietta Miles summed up an issue for me; too much talk about writing instead of writing.

It's important to make sure that you balance your priorities, and that you don't let the sometimes fun activities get in the way of actually writing. Nobody needs to belong to five critique groups. Nobody needs to attend every marketing seminar. Nobody needs to take course after course when manuscripts are sitting unfinished, gathering dust.

At some point, we all have to put our big girl or boy pants on and get down to the business of being a serious writer if we want to be taken seriously. That doesn't mean don't socialize. It doesn't mean you have a support group you can be accountable to or run things by as needed.

It just means that your top priority remains the writing.

I had to shut off the world a bit this summer in order to get a manuscript done. Due to the fact that I did have a support group, and I was challenged by Mindy Tarquini to push myself out of my comfort zone, I ended up making significant changes I'd never expected to make. A month ago I wasn't even close to done, but over the past month I cut down my input and focused on the output.

Last night, I put the final touches on this manuscript and in a rare moment for me, I walked away happy with the ending and with a sense of satisfaction that I didn't think possible weeks ago.

I wouldn't have reached this point without motivation, but I also wouldn't have reached this point without prioritizing my time.

A person I knew (not an author or part of my network, but a schoolteacher) once got really snippy with me because they asked for a blog post and I wasn't able to produce one immediately. They pointed to another writer who'd come through when I hadn't, and they were a "bigger name."

I pointed out that they write full-time and that I balance full-time work and a family with my writing time. It's important to remember what your life responsibilities are when you commit your time to things. Prioritize. You don't need to take every publicity opportunity offered and you don't need to feel guilty for sometimes saying no.

You do need to make sure that you stay on track with your writing goals. After all, what's the point of every publicity opportunity if you never have anything ready to publish?