Freelancing Fluctuations, from the Gaps to the Gravy and Back Again


Photo by Lum3n.com from Pexels
 
Freelancing rolls in odd waves, sets of growth and sets of ebbs, but not as consistently (or mostly predictably) as the waves surfers rely on. The last couple of months I’ve had several articles published in national magazines, but not from my usual pattern of sending out flurries of queries and getting the standard higher percentage of “no thanks” or no reply at all—and the occasional “yes.”

Instead, out at dinner, I had a train enthusiast friend rave about the biggest steam train in America being restored after years of dormant slumbers. Because I’d recently seen a solicitation for pitches from an editor at Popular Mechanics, I queried and got a yes, thus this article steaming down the tracks.

And from that friend’s little story, now my collection of train articles on PopMech are three.

A little later, I thought the story of me selling an empty bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon on eBay might make an amusing tale. So when I pitched it to an editor at Vox, she countered, asking instead for a broader industry piece on the world of collectible whiskey. That was a much more interesting (and lucrative, for me) dip into a weird world.

Not long after publication, a PR person in LA who read the whiskey story pitched me (wonder of wonders) on the story of a company she represents that’s producing the world’s first carbon-negative vodka. Because I’d seen that Popular Mechanics had also been publishing some pieces on the spirit world, I approached the editor who’d done my train pieces, and he went for it.

That’s a strange, not-quite-round circle of call-and-answer, and none of it would probably have happened had I not eaten dinner with my friend who had the old steam train on his mind.

That breaker was rather a rogue wave in those steady sets of freelancing queries and responses and one that had unexpected ripples.

So, next time someone tells you an interesting story over your rigatoni, make a note or two. You never know where that tale will take you.

Lost Kitty Update

I wrote earlier about my sadness over my cat Malibu having gone missing, at that point 12 days in on her absence. As of today, she is gone two months, and it’s still hard to reconcile that we probably won’t see her again (though there are many tales of cats returning after longer absences). It’s startling to me how thoughts of her jump into my mind unprompted, and how nondescript things around the house remind me of her absence.

I hear of parents who are crushed, devastated when something happens to their children. I can only imagine, woefully the depth of that kind of loss. But Malibu was so much a part of our family that her absence is a harsh void. I’m happy to have known her.

Links

Here are some titled links to my articles mentioned above (and a bonus LSD trip!), and a couple of pieces from the net that I thought helpful.

This Is the World’s First Carbon-Negative Vodka

The weird world of whiskey collecting, explained

Why the Big Boy 4014 Is Such a Badass Train

Acid Rain Isn’t Always What You Think It Is

How to Become the Best in the World at Something

Four Ways to Calm Your Mind in Stressful Times

Good writing and reading to all!

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Sadder

Malibu chilling

 

Animals have an uncanny gift: they can bypass your brain and go directly to your heart. And they do this without guile, and thus are all the more captivating.

My kitty Malibu has been missing for 12 days now, and the weight of her absence is heavy. She was semi-feral when we found her six or seven years ago, and has always been an indoor-outdoor cat, often spending the warmer nights outside. So her not being around in the morning a ways back was concerning, not alarming.

Now we are alarmed.

The Soul of the Beast

When you get close to a creature, and get to know its behaviors, its whims and its eccentricities, you see that some animals have fully developed personalities. You know when a meow means contentment or annoyance, an arch of the back means alertness or calm.

Animals have a sense of humor, moods and aspirations. Look into the eyes of an animal you know well, and you can see their consciousness looking back. I know that this would prompt argument from many corners, but I believe that some animals have a soul, that they have an eternal spirit aside from the blood and bone.

That knowledge does give me some comfort, yet I ache for Malibu’s physical presence.

We have combed the neighborhood again and again, put up posters, gone to the shelter, notified the neighborhood online group, called for her endlessly. I’ve twice seen the shape of her head in the neighbor’s field, but that was just gathered grass. I’ve heard her meow, sometimes plaintively, but the the meows were just trilling birds or the squeaks of farm equipment. Twice I’ve awoken to her meowing in dreams, and rose in bed, only to realize that it was a phantom call.

Not knowing her fate is the hard part.

So, Malibu, my sweetheart, my companion, my friend, if you are out there, come home; if you are gone, rest in peace.

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Five Fiction Sites That Tell the Facts


Once in a while I do a round-up post that lists my go-to sites for fiction-writing advice. Maybe not so oddly, some of the same names come up over and over—not because I’m lazy (don’t roll your eyes), but because the people that populate these sites know their stuff.

And that stuff is all about how to write, how to think about writing, how to write about thinking. As well as all that gritty craft stuff: story arcs, theme, setting, character development, side plots, secondary characters, beginnings, endings, denouements and other fancy words that might be spelled “climax,” and maybe even how to use a semicolon once in a while. (Hint: use tongs.)

Most of the solid citizens below have newsletters that will remind you, with pleasure, why you subscribed.

Writer Unboxed

Consistently good pieces on craft and craftiness (and an occasional jeremiad on the trials of the writing life), written by established writers, up-and-coming writers, and writers who recently realized that every letter of the alphabet is theirs. This is a strong writing community: the comments section is often the heart of the writerly dissection, and that’s saying something, because the posts are gold.

Steven Pressfield

Frank discussions on writing foibles and follies, from a guy who made “The Resistance” mean more than just rolling your eyes at the White House. Pressfield is a novelist and nonfiction writer who writes with succinct zing on what keeps us from writing, and how to wipe the cobwebs off your keyboard and get going.

Jane Friedman

Friedman covers all things publishing, which is a lot of coverage. Tons of info on self-publishing and indies, with example best practices and how-tos. Her material ranges from good cover design to Amazon analytics (and speaking of Amazon, her information covers the industry practices as well). There are also guest posts on matters of craft for fiction and nonfiction writers alike.

The Creative Penn

An established thriller writer and writer of nonfiction books on writing subjects (many on self-publishing), Penn seems tireless, since she also puts out a great podcast on publishing matters. Good tools/resource lists on a spectrum of writing concerns. Do check out her free Author 2.0 Blueprint book. Penn, who probably couldn’t stand still as a child, now has a travel and writing blog and podcast too.

Funds for Writers

No, they aren’t just going to dole out dough to you, you underfunded writer you—I already asked. But the free newsletter lists lots of writing grants and retreats, writing contests, job markets and guest columns on writing, both fiction and non. Hope Clark, the author of many mystery novels (recommended!) who runs the joint, is tough and charming at the same time. Her column is personal, sometimes blunt, and always worth the read.

Bonus Lie
K. M. Weiland

Hah, I lied, so I could preserve the alliteration in the subject line. I must recommend six sites, because the sixth provides some sixth senses about writing fiction. Weiland, writer of speculative fiction and nonfiction writing guides, gives solid advice on pretty much every brick in the writing castle, from outlining, to writing scenes, to understanding the differences between plot and theme to every little way a character can wiggle. (And I have to say, “and much more,” because there really is a lot more on her site as well.)

Discount Shrubbery!

For the next 5 days, my novel set in Prohibition Boston, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub, is discounted to $2.99 for the ebook version. You can get a lot of background information on the characters and the time period Rick Wilson (my co-writer) and I put together at www.swirledshrub.com.

Buy the hundreds of copies you crave here on Amazon or here through other online retailers. And if you already bought a copy, please consider a review at the retailer of your choice—we do so crave attention (and it really can help sales).

Even When the Whiskey Runs Dry, There’s a Story in Every Bottle

Were Pappy here today, he’d be smoking a much more expensive cigar

In the summer of 2011, I made a video homage to Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV, only instead of sipping and then tripping on the layered characteristics of wine, I swilled three whiskeys instead. One of those fine vintages was Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old bourbon, at the time considered one of the best bourbons in the world.

I’d been given a bottle that past Christmas, and as I explained in the video, at $110.00, it was a galaxy beyond my normal price range. Though I’d been given the whiskey months before, I’d been doling out its precious drams—it was a Christmas miracle that I had any left by summer to make the video.

But alas, even bountiful loaves and fishes must go the way of all things. Yet, after I did suck out the last drop of the distillate with a glass pipette in a thermally regulated room and wearing a blackout mask to concentrate on the taste, I kept the bottle on a shelf in my office. Sort of an aspirational inspiration.

Aspirational indeed.

Let’s See: How ‘Bout Two Ounces of Gold for 750ml of Bourbon?

If you Google Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old, and you read current prices for the hootch, you will lose your eyebrows. You probably won’t find it for under $1,200 a bottle (if that cheapo bottle is actually available), and in some rarefied zones, you will see prices climbing over the $3,000 dazzlement barrier. Zounds!

Sure, Pappy is fine whiskey, and perhaps it was and is the best bourbon in the world. That’s arguable. But $3,000 a bottle is more of a theoretical thing, a result of smashing atoms together and coming up with a particle that can’t be explained. Along the lines of the tulip mania craze in the 1600s in Holland, where the price of tulip bulbs unpredictably lifted to the heavens, and then resoundingly crashed in 1637, a hellish year for bulb brokers.

Now Pappy hasn’t crashed yet, but one suspects as all markets climb and all markets plummet, it will. The whiskey will still be good, but the folks who have hoarded it for its investment value might start mixing it with Coke.

I’ll Take the Porsche Carrera GT and Two Empty Pappy Bottles

But artificially inflated whiskey prices aren’t what I actually wanted to discuss. I want to discuss artificially inflated bottle prices. Empty bottles. I’d heard a bit back that empty Pappy 20-year-old bottles were selling for $75 on eBay. What? Empties? I checked it out, and sure enough, many people had sold their Pappys for $60 and up. Mine had sat on the shelf for 8 years, and I’d never bought another. (And if prices hold, never will.)

So, I put that pup on eBay, and in a week’s time, sure enough it had sold to some lucky fellow in Ohio for $115, including shipping. It wasn’t lost on me that the bottle sold for more than the sizzlingly high price it held when it was full of its soothing elixir. I was pleased that someone had paid me a tidy sum for a bottle that only held vapors (it did still have a nice bouquet), but being a writerly sort, I had to wonder: what was he (and all those other bottle buyers) going to do with the bottle?

Fill the Bottle with Stories

Was he going to fill it with Early Times bourbon and casually whip it out at a poker party to lavishly indulge his friends? “Yeah, I bought it a while back at only $900. I figured you guys were worth it.”

Was he going to fill it with some nice but not nearly as pricy wheated bourbon (maybe even Maker’s Mark), get the cork professionally resealed, and try to get three grand for it on some Dark Web site where he’d be forever anonymous?

Or perhaps he is going to put it on a shelf with some other distinguished empties he bought online, some outrageous 200-year-old single-malt, maybe a Screaming Eagle or two, a Chateau d’Yquem, and invite his new girlfriend over to his mancave to have her gasp at his impeccable palate and his bulging bank account?

Who knows? But it’s amusing to work up a story or two on the disposition of the bottle, and how even empty, it might provide intoxication to come for new owners. In the meantime, I’m scouring the house for eBay potentials. There’s a Sock Monkey that’s been sloppily grinning at me for years now. Surely after I shake off his dust he’s worth a grand or two.

Persistence Pays the Persevering Writer

My own shiny beauty. I lost my first one on the road (it might be in space now)

I keep a running list of article queries that haven’t landed a published home. Some of them are many years old, but I still like many of the ideas, and know that even an old query can still shake the right editor hand if the pitch is well-timed and properly directed. I didn’t quite realize just how wobbly-kneed the oldest of those queries is until I got an editorial yes on one that was several years old.

Today I breezed through the entire list, and saw that the geezer at file bottom was a pitch for a review on the best Palm OS-based exercise software. For those of you that exist in this world, Palm hasn’t produced one of its PDAs (a term as hoary as my pitch) since 2010, but people stopped buying them well before that, and my pitch predated 2010 by some years. By the way, if you’re wondering, PDAs have essentially been replaced by a device dubbed a “smartphone.” Who knows—they might catch on.

I’m amused by the fact that the file name of my query list is called “New Queries.” On reflection, “New and Essentially Deceased Queries” has more ring, but I’ll leave that for now. What I did want to emphasize is that if an article idea grabbed you once, grab it back, and send it out on its rounds now and then. The piece that was just accepted, by Wired UK, is about the history of the Fisher Space Pen, which wrote its way into history by its gravity-defying ink, first used in space in 1968, on the Apollo 7 mission.

The Space Pen just had its 50th anniversary (and continues to make its presence on all manned U.S. space flights), so perhaps it was newsworthy again. I’ve sent that query out to between 10–15 publications over the last three or four years, and finally got a hit.

Persistence pays, grasshopper. (Don’t think the Palm pitch will be exercising any editors now though.)

Free Circles

I’ve made the Kindle version of my first novel, All Roads Are Circles, free on Amazon and at other online booksellers. Circles is a lively story about a couple of high-school doofuses who hitchhike across Canada, getting their eyes widened due to their naiveté about the ways of the road. Wise guys they are, but wisdom is in short supply. Check it out—won’t cost you a thin dime.

Trimming the Shrub

And a request for anyone who has bought my newest novel, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub. If you didn’t bite, it’s a Prohibition-era piece about a sozzled society reporter and would-be author who blunders in and out of love, lunacy and sorrow in post-Crash Boston. If you have read it, please consider an online review at Amazon, or Goodreads or any other online book vendor. Reviews help a great deal with a book’s success. Thanks!

Getting Your 200,000-mile Writer’s Tuneup

I wonder if the engine would like a CBD treatment rather than oil

My car just turned over its 200,000th mile. I do like milestones, so I should have prepared by putting a wet bar in the trunk a couple of months ago so I could have whipped up a roadside cocktail at the divine moment, but instead I just noted the passage with some bemusement, rather than amusement. 

Probably because it’s an old Toyota Corolla, and an insipid silver-grey at that. This most unprepossessing vehicle—which probably would be great for bank robberies, because of its blandness—is the most common car I’ve ever owned. Among the beauties I’ve piloted are a ’62 Caddy, ’63 Mercury Monterey, ’64 Dodge Dart, ’62 Pontiac Tempest, ’65 Ford Galaxie, ’64 Studebaker, ’71 Volvo p1800, ’81 Mercedes 380SL, ’81 Jag XJ6, and a bunch of old BMWs and old Volkswagens. I love old, interesting cars.

So, turning over 200,000 in a listless Corolla was kind of a letdown.

Writerly Roses Among Some Thorns

I bought the Toyota a bit back because the cash register hasn’t been ringing as often the past couple of years, despite my usual efforts in pitching both business writing and freelance pieces, as well as book editing and fiction writing. Those usually add up to something, but this year, nothing added up. Hello Corolla.

So, I’ve felt like it was me with the 200,000 miles under the hood, and needful of an oil change. Or more to the point, a writer’s tuneup.

But I did publish a novel in the spring that I feel came out well, and now I’ve just published another, so there’s some satisfaction in that. The latest is Swirled All the Way to the Shrub,  my first collaborative novel, written with my pal Rick Wilson. Here’s the logline for the book: 

Sozzled reporter and would-be author blunders in and out of love, lunacy and sorrow in post-Great Depression Boston.

Uplifting, eh?

You can download a PDF of the book’s first three chapters at the bottom of the Shrub site’s home page.

if you’re not the Amazonian type, the Where to Buy page on the site has a number of other online vendors for the ebook. There are also some elaborations of historical references from the book on the site and some other amusements about our collaboration. And for you worldly types, drink recipes from the 1930s.

The deal on this shrubbery (“It’s got to be a nice one,” as Monty Python would say) will only be until year’s end. We’ll be tuning the ebook and print prices up from there.

An odd year, in so many ways, for me and of course, for our country. I think we’re all in need of a writer’s tune-up. But I welcome a new year—and I have many new thoughts on changes to my work, forging new habits, perspectives and challenges. Maybe I’ll even paint flames on the side of the Corolla. 

Happy Holidays to all!

Writing Rejections Give You a Glimmer of Hope



Having been a freelancer writing both nonfiction and fiction for many years, you get used to writing rejections. They used to chafe more years ago, but my skin has thickened, so that I normally can simply say “Next!” and mean it without too much teeth-gritting. Not too much.

But once in a while, rejections are motivational. And not just in the sense of “That blasted editor doesn’t know a good story from a cucumber! I’ll show him/her/it!” (“It” because I’m sure AI will soon be used to make editorial decisions in some offices.) Vengeance can certainly be motivational, but here I speak more of a connective motivation, an empathetic one.

Case in point: Glimmer Train, the fine literary journal and press, has been publishing writers for nearly 30 years. They often champion unknown writers, and are willing to dig around the edges in fiction and nonfiction to bring interesting and exciting voices to the page. I haven’t subscribed to their journal (shame!), but I’ve picked it up in bookstores here and there over the years, and have always been delighted in the reading.

And the yearning.

Getting to the Counter Before the Shop Closes

The yearning is this: I’ve known for a while that Glimmer Train is one of the premiere literary journals, and that to be published there is a new feather in any writer’s quill pen. But I haven’t had confidence in many of my short stories, so I’ve sent only a few pieces over the years. Looking at my submissions spreadsheet (I started tracking electronically in 2003), I sent GT stories in 2007, 2013, and 2014.

Here’s where the motivational parts come in. Early this year, I heard that Glimmer Train was going to shut down in 2019. Not from lack of success, far from it. The reason is easy to understand: the two sisters (one of the appealing things about the magazine—it’s been run by two sisters, all this time) have been the conductors of the train for 30 years, and they are ready to close the station. They read every story that’s submitted: I read somewhere that they read thousands of stories a year. Crickey, I’d be tired too.

In early May, I didn’t send them a story, but a note:

Glimmer Sisters, my stomach dropped when I read that you guys were going to pull the shades on the train and picnic in green pastures. You have done such great work for writers for so long, it seemed like you were a perennial season—Spring comes to mind.

Thank you for your deep and generous work, Tom Bentley

And got this back the same day:

What a kind message, Tom. Thank you. Susan
P.S. Our stomachs dropped, too!

Sending the Story Before It Turns into a Pumpkin

At that point, I hadn’t been writing fiction for a while, spending all my time getting a novel published and marketed. But knowing that the train was pulling into the station, I was motivated. I’d had a story idea for a while and went for it; I sent it off to one of GT’s summer contests, hoping not to get a lump of coal. The “Sorry, no dice” form letter came through yesterday.

That didn’t cut too deep, despite my disappointment, so I sent them this message:

Susan and Linda, thanks for taking a look. Hope things are going well as you prepare your final salutes to a fine publication.

thanks, Tom

And again, a same-day response:

What a kind – and welcome! – message. Thank you, Tom. Susan

Motivation again: they are still accepting submissions through May of 2019. I have another idea for a short story. They are going to get it first.

You have to take your writing motivations where you can get them. If they come from the (rejection) kindness of strangers, all the better.

For Writers (and Readers), Sometimes Simple Is Best


I jump around a lot in my reading, from fiction to nonfiction, genre to genre, era to era. My current novel is O Pioneers!, written by Willa Cather in 1913. At that point, she was living in New York, having left the hardscrabble life of the Great Plains far behind. But that hard land, with its hard light, was in her blood, the source of her Prairie Trilogy of novels, of which Pioneers is the first.

Below is a passage from late in the book, where an omniscient narrator is describing Alexandra, the contained, self-sufficient protagonist of the work. I read this passage several times, noting that its cadence, simple word choice and weight are carriers of what I so often admire in fiction—and perhaps, because my own writing is so different, a literary vein whose mind feels closed to me.

There are a number of authors whose work is painted with spare and simple language that in the reading delivers a kind of haunting gravity. I’m thinking of Marilynne Robinson’s many novels, Kent Haruf’s work, some of Cormac McCarthy’s, a story like Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. There’s a flinty character to how words are strung together that entrances me.

If you haven’t read the work, you won’t have the context of who Alexandra is (nor of Emil, her younger brother), so the impact will be softer. But still, read and listen to the work of the words:

Her personal life, her own realization of herself, was almost a subconscious existence; like an underground river that came to the surface only here and there, at intervals months apart, and then sank again to flow on under her own fields. Nevertheless, the underground stream was there, and it was because she had so much personality to put into her enterprises and succeeded in putting it into them so completely, that her affairs prospered better than those of her neighbors.

 

There were certain days in her life, outwardly uneventful, which Alexandra remembered as peculiarly happy; days when she was close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body the joyous germination in the soil. There were days, too, which she and Emil had spent together, upon which she loved to look back. There had been such a day when they were down on the river in the dry year, looking over the land. They had made an early start one morning and had driven a long way before noon. When Emil said he was hungry, they drew back from the road, gave Brigham his oats among the bushes, and climbed up to the top of a grassy bluff to eat their lunch under the shade of some little elm trees. The river was clear there, and shallow, since there had been no rain, and it ran in ripples over the sparkling sand. Under the overhanging willows of the opposite bank there was an inlet where the water was deeper and flowed so slowly that it seemed to sleep in the sun. In this little bay a single wild duck was swimming and diving and preening her feathers, disporting herself very happily in the flickering light and shade.

 

They sat for a long time, watching the solitary bird take its pleasure. No living thing had ever seemed to Alexandra as beautiful as that wild duck. Emil must have felt about it as she did, for afterward, when they were at home, he used sometimes to say, “Sister, you know our duck down there—” Alexandra remembered that day as one of the happiest in her life. Years afterward she thought of the duck as still there, swimming and diving all by herself in the sunlight, a kind of enchanted bird that did not know age or change.

 

Most of Alexandra’s happy memories were as impersonal as this one; yet to her they were very personal. Her mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things. Not many people would have cared to read it; only a happy few. She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as work-fellows. She had grown up in serious times.

 

Simple Is Seductive

And if you lived through one of those late 19th-century Nebraska winters as Cather did, you’d have known serious times too. But what gets me about this little stretch of writing is its clarity and modesty. Its basis is that simple—perhaps entirely forgettable—memory between the siblings, and speaks of their deep bond, which is explored throughout the book, as well as Alexandra’s controlled yet-never-stiff reserve. Beautiful stuff.

Oh, another writer comes to mind too: Paul Bowles. The Sheltering Sky is an almost hallucinatory novel that uses razored, acute (and often very plain) language to describe shattering happenings in both the minds and lives of its characters and in the descriptive passages about North Africa. Whew! I have to read that again.

This care with language and the ability to weave existential weight into spare descriptions fascinates me. Something to aspire to in my own writing, but always to enjoy, regardless.

Coughing Up a Writer’s Block



Lately, I am a thing coughed. Or a vehicle for spasms, which deny the pleas of my brain—the so-called higher powers—in favor of the visceral dominance of the thundering lungs. At least the coughing doesn’t interfere with my typing—except when it’s a sudden blast in the middle of keying in a word.

“The coughing,” in this new world of mine, is what happens nearly every time I try to navigate a spoken sentence. I had a cold five weeks ago that seemed your standard package of sneezy blear and leaden fatigue, playing itself out in a week or so. But the cough. The cough, Coltrane’s longest saxophone screech, a filibuster of a cough, endless, monopolizing.

That cough, the one that won’t stop.

Writing and Other Blasts of Air

You, as any sensible person who doesn’t want to read about self-gazing medical conditions might ask, “What’s that got to do with writing?” Well, a couple of things: one, it’s odd to be taken out of your day-to-day and made to realize how locked in you are to certain behaviors and “natural” expressions. For the last five weeks, I haven’t been able to speak more than a sentence or two without coughing or wheezing or sputtering. This obscure debility keeps creeping into my thoughts about writing, my motivations toward writing. I seem less a writer with a cough than a cough with a writer attached.

My condition has made for truly odd phone calls where I’ll drop away in mid-word, or in conversation with someone where I’ll try and hurry out a sentence before my convulsion. Trying to avoid this reflex abdominal trampling has changed the tone of my voice as well, where I’ve gone from a brimming baritone to the sound of, perhaps, a pecking piccolo.

Since I regularly assert my masculinity by knowing the right deodorant and shoe color to buy, these squeaky voicings trouble me.

Drug Him!

I’ve gone the inhaler route and prescription cough medication route and groovy-cough-medication-from-the-natural-foods-store route and all those routes have been dead ends so far. So I’ll see a lung doc next week; maybe we can smoke some cigarettes together and mull it. (Weirdly enough, when I last had this condition—and yes, I’ve had it before, once lasting more than six months—one of the things my doctor recommended was to smoke pot with a vaporizer. That was 10 years ago, before vaporizers were available like apples from the market. Vaporizing pot didn’t help the cough, but it rekindled a love affair with Doritos.)

All in all, I feel fine; it’s just the cough that’s the problem. This setback, temporary I’m sure, does make me wonder: how do people deal with the disruption to their lives (and deal with the anxiety and fear) when their condition is serious? You really don’t know how you’ll behave in the face of something grave. I only have the frustration of a minor condition—I don’t have to muster up any courage.

At least I can write without breaking into hacking barks. And my cough gave me something to write about today. I have heard that laughter is the best medicine, but since laughing makes me cough, I’ll stick to bourbon and honey.

Even Book Covers Need Facelifts



As I have been trumpeting (excuse the noise), I released a new novel, Aftershock, this week. The book’s cover is the result of a deliberate and sustained back and forth between me and Alicia Neal, the illustrator, on all aspects of image, design, color and typography. You can read all about that process in this post on the dandy writer’s site, WriterUnboxed. The final cover took a lot of work and time, but it was worth it.

Choosing Aftershock’s cover—and finally publishing the dang thing: it only took eight years—made me revisit the cover of my first novel, All Roads Are Circles. That too was a process of give and take with the illustrator, who did approach the vision I initially had for the book’s cover, but didn’t quite get there. I take responsibility for that.

I didn’t work with her in the same way I worked with Alicia, which was to initially give her a number of model covers that exemplified aspects of design and emotional impact that intrigued me and move from there. Nor did we go over the iterations of the cover with the same amount of fine deliberation that went on between Alicia and me.

Not Quite Capturing the Fall

What I wanted in the cover was some metaphorical sense of fall and possible redemption. The novel’s final chapters are set in an apple orchard, where the protagonist has besmirched himself morally. There’s a close-to-final scene where he offers up an apple to a woman in the orchard. I wanted some resonance with Adam and Eve’s moment in the Garden, where as you recall an apple played a meaningful part.

But the imagery of what I accepted as the final cover above didn’t quite hold that feeling. However, I was impatient to get book out there (never a good idea, my writer friends) and I settled for a cover that was adequate, but not inspiring. To repeat: my fault, not that of the illustrator, whom I sure could have moved the piece forward.

Will Using Stock Images Put You in the Stocks?

Feeling good about Aftershock’s cover made me want to work again with Circles. This time, I wanted a photographic image and not an illustration. Hitchhiking is a major theme in the book, and I thought I’d have a strong image of my own from somewhere on the road. Nope. So I spent a day or so on free and paid image sites, and finally settled on the one that’s the lead image for this post.

That’s an inexpensive iStock image that allows royalty-free commercial use. The photo worked perfectly for the feeling of a forlorn hitchhiker on a lonely road. It was also large enough to wrap around for both a spine and a back cover. My galpal Alice, who has good experience with graphic design, worked it up into the cover you see. I searched for it using Google’s reverse image search to see if it appeared on any book covers, but couldn’t find evidence for that or from other searches.

On the other hand, there’s ample evidence that using a stock photo on a cover might not be a good idea. Though the image I used is free of the licensing dangers expressed here, it might indeed be on a book cover somewhere that I couldn’t find, making my book a clone of sorts. (Here’s another piece on the appropriateness of stock images that’s softer on the perils.)

Anyway, I think I’m covered. (And don’t get any ideas about using that image for your hitchhiking novel, because I will turn off the electricity at your house and you won’t be able to get any of Justin Bieber’s tweets any longer.)