It could be something you read, or something you thought about. A conversation. People you meet.
The title for my most recent short story, Fifteen Unfinished Novels, comes from a conversation I had with my boss. When he joined the company where I work, he set up ‘one on ones’ with everyone in the team he inherited, so that he could know us as people rather than just employees.
He was fascinated to learn that I was (at the time) working on my second novel, and remarked that he had started 15 novels but never managed to finish one. I was fascinated by the idea that anyone could have that many novel ideas but not finish even one!
At the time, I thought that Fifteen Unfinished Novels would be a great title. Why were they unfinished? What were they about? I decided I would like these unfinished novels to be the words and thoughts that one character was unable – for whatever reason – to express to another character. I also thought it was time to write about a married couple, rather than a couple just embarking on a relationship, and I wanted that marriage to be in trouble.
The inspiration for the holiday that I chose for Fifteen Unfinished Novels – Memorial Day – was a chance meeting. From the end of February to mid-April this year, I was part of the crew on a tall ship making a seven-week sailing voyage from South Africa to India. The ship, Lord Nelson, is run by a UK charity called the Jubilee Sailing Trust, and ‘Nellie’ and sister ship Tenacious are designed so that physically disabled people can serve as crew. Two other crew members were young men in their late 20s, who last year left the army. They both were injured by explosive devices while serving in Afghanistan and had a leg amputated below the knee. Talking to those two ex-soldiers, discovering their pride in their service and their sense of rootlessness now that they have left the army, gave me a new perspective on what it could mean to a person to be a soldier.
So I combined those two inspirations. In Fifteen Unfinished Novels, Larry and Janet live in a small town in South Carolina. They married in their late teens when Janet became pregnant, and the focus of their married life was their son Dan. Janet has always believed that Larry married her for duty rather than for love, and after Dan’s death at age 19 in Afghanistan, their marriage seems empty. She longs to share her grief and anguish with her husband, but he retreats into his writing.
“She knew that life was not rainbows and buttercups, that it was a struggle sometimes to make ends meet or just to get through the day. But she had never imagined she would end up, at 37, childless and loveless.”
As Janet puts it, her husband would rather waste his time on his “stupid scribbles” than talk to her. In a desperate bid for his attention, she decides to throw away the notebooks containing his 15 novels, all unfinished – but she drops one, and reads it, and discovers that, perhaps, there is something in her marriage worth saving, after all.
Fifteen Unfinished Novels is about miscommunications and false assumptions, grief and bereavement, and how easy it is to live with a partner and yet not know them.
“Fifteen Unfinished novels” will be FREE for Kindle from Amazon on 25-27 May.
If you’ve read So I ate it, you saw this one coming.
In the short story that this cover illustrates, the hero Gordon offers to make the heroine Alice something he says is “the perfect chocolate martini”. He describes it as a peace offering, an attempt to get them back onto a friendly footing after an argument.
There was never any doubt about what the cover photo for this story would be.
This is one of my favourite drinks, an ideal relaxer after a long day at work. I do cheat when it’s just for me: I can’t be bothered with the cocoa rim on the glass, and instead I dust sieved cocoa lightly over the drink.
You’ll be glad to learn that unlike disposing of the photo shoot props for “Toast to Go“, I held off on this photo shoot until late afternoon, rather than late morning. Not even I can face a chocolate martini at 11am!
I had only a few minutes to take the shots. Not only because I had no desire to “dispose of” a warm martini, but I wanted the frostiness of the chilled glass to still be visible in the final photograph. This meant setting up the shoot in advance, trying different backgrounds and lighting with an empty glass.
All that was required then was to fetch the photo shoot prop from the fridge (as they say on Blue Peter, a UK television program, “Here’s one I made earlier”). Snap, snap, snap, done. The shoot was over. All that remained was to tidy up and dispose of the prop.
All together now: “So I drank it.”
If you would like to make your own drinkable photo shoot prop, here’s my recipe:
The Perfect Chocolate Martini
6 ice cubes
1.5 to 1.75 oz good vodka
0.5 to 0.25 oz clear crème de cacao
good quality cocoa powder
- moisten the rim of the martini glass with crème de cacao, then dip it in sieved cocoa; put the glass into the fridge to chill while you make the drink
- if you want the ice to merely chill the alcohol, put the cubes whole into a cocktail shaker; if you want the final drink slightly diluted, crush or crack the ice cubes
- add a total of 2 ounces of vodka and crème de cacao (vary the proportions, depending on how sweet you want it)
- shake vigorously for a few seconds, then pour into the chilled glass
On the left is the ‘cover’ (illustration, really, as it will never be printed) of my first short story, ‘Toast To Go’, which is set at Sydney’s Bondi Beach and has a Valentine’s Day theme. Northern Hemisphere readers may be intrigued at the idea of Valentine’s Day in the heat of summer. Having lived most of my life in the Northern Hemisphere, I certainly have a hard time getting to grips with Christmas in summer!
As a self-published author, and a fairly miserly one at that, I have a marketing budget of exactly zero dollars. Yes, I know, I paid $21 for the cover image of ‘Too Close’. And I wasted $30 on facebook ads for ‘Ship to Shore’, but I loved those balloon graphs. In order to cut down on additional costs, I decided to create all the artwork for the first two short stories myself.
First, the bag.
I generally bring my lunch to work, but I needed a supply of those white bags that takeaway (‘to go’ in North America) sandwiches come in, so for one week in January I bought my lunch. I ended up with four white bags (and one brown!) in different sizes. I used a handwriting font to typeset the note that the hero of my story, café owner Dave, slips into the bag along with the toast for my heroine, Jemma, then printed that and cut it roughly from the paper.
Second, the toast.
I had some excellent bread in the freezer. Thick, chunky, multi-grain and multi-seed toast. Very photogenic, I thought. The only problem was that I had just two slices left. With big air bubbles near the top. That meant I had to get the toasting perfect first time around – not too dark, not too light – and be careful in handling the slices so as not to break them near the bubbles.
Third, the oil.
How much oil dripped onto the white paper bag would create the effect of blotched translucency that I wanted? Too much oil would make the ‘window’ too large; too little, and the words on the note would be illegible. There went two of my four white bags in oil tests.
Fourth, the toast again.
In the story, Jemma’s toast is “dripping with butter and honey”. But I feared they would make my photo props soggy, and also stain the bag. So which to opt for, form or function? Function won. The toast was dry.
Fifth, the position.
Toast up. Toast down. Toast peeking coyly from the bag, or thrusting out proudly? Where to put the note? Which words should show? Portrait or landscape?
I spent a good half hour taking photographs of this toast in the bag, dashing after each one from photographic studio (a table in the living room near the window, with a bright even light) to design studio (my desk in the same living room, where my laptop lives) in order to download the photos from the camera and place them in the InDesign file for the cover.
After 15 photographs of toast in a bag, I managed one that fit the design of the cover, showed both toast and note, had no distracting background, and left room for the title and my name.
By now, it was late morning, and I’d been working on this photo shoot and cover design for quite some time. Breakfast was hours ago. Lunch was a vague, distant plan. And there was my edible photo prop, sitting in its bag. Remember I said I was fairly miserly? It was good bread, healthy and tasty. Would have been a shame to throw it away.
So I ate it. Peanut butter and jam will hide even the defects of cold, less-than-crunchy toast.
A later post will be about the cover of my second short story, which is themed around Easter. It’s called ‘The Perfect Chocolate Martini’, and I took the photo. What do you suppose that post will be titled?
After a marathon last-minute editing and rewriting push, and a number of detailed emails back and forth between my editor in Toronto and me in Sydney, we have crafted a stronger, tighter novel. She makes observations regarding character and plot on things that don’t even occur to me. That’s not to say I follow them all, mind you! The penguins in the sign are for her.
Then she and I, plus my chief proofreader (thanks, Mum!), trawled through all 85,000 words looking for typos and garbled words. If I never read that book again, I’ll be happy!
For the first time in months, I woke up this morning without dialogue running through my head. No dash to write down that perfect word before I forgot it. Too late now!
Now, of course, is the part I don’t enjoy: spreading the word. How much good does it actually do to post on Amazon’s Kindle forums to promote your book, to an audience of only other writers promoting their books? Will a good review on a blog actually translate into sales?
I’ve started a series of short stories set during holidays, called Holiday Romances. I’ve written two so far, one for Valentine’s Day (Toast To Go) and one for Easter (The Perfect Chocolate Martini). My plan (cunning or otherwise!) is to give them away on Amazon on the days of the holidays, the point being that the short stories have the blurbs and links to the novels at the end. With luck, a few thousand people will download the free stories, read them in 20 minutes, love them, and click on the book links.
To my astonishment, both Too Close and Toast sold copies within hours of ‘going live’, before I had even told anyone that they were live. So I am cautiously optimistic.
But as for the question “now what?”, well, that’s easy to answer.
I’m going to read other people’s books for a while. Catch up on movies. And go on holiday: I’m sailing from South Africa to India on a tall ship for seven weeks. That should give me plenty of time to come up with novel number three!
I wrote my first novel, Ship to Shore, as a Brit. It uses UK spelling and words, metric measurements, etc. This is partly because the book is set in London, the Hebrides and on a ship on the Atlantic Ocean, and the characters are either English or Scottish, and partly because that’s what comes naturally to me. I grew up in Canada but have lived in England and Australia for most of my adult life, and spent 20 years as an editor of English as it is used in those three countries.
Too Close, my second novel, is aimed squarely at the US market, however. (That’s where the numbers are!) It’s set primarily in San Francisco, with side trips to Seattle and Las Vegas, and the main characters are American. They use cell phones not mobile phones, and wear pants rather than trousers. (And thanks to my mother’s sharp eyes, they now wear baseball caps not baseball hats. Oops.)
How hard could it be, I thought, to be a fake American? I spent almost 30 years just across the border in Canada, and visit my parents at their winter home in south Texas. I watch US movies and US TV shows.
I was sure I could pull off a novel that sounded like it was written by an American.
The US spelling was a bit tricky, but once I set the language to US English, Word’s handy red squiggle under a mis-spelled word kept me on track. Things like “harbor” and “realize” were not a problem, but I could not figure out what it objected to in “marvellous”. Surely Americans don’t drop the u? The o? No, but it turns out that they do drop that second el!
The punctuation was the second peril. It required a conscious effort to put it inside the final quote mark, rather than outside (as I’ve done with marvellous, above; in Too Close, that full stop – oops, that period! – would have gone inside the mark).
And I was halfway through the first draft before I remembered that Americans say Mom, not Mum. A quick find and replace fixed that one.
Gotten. That is one Americanisn I will never ‘get’. I tried using “had gotten” a few times, and it just seemed wrong, wrong, wrong. So I rewrote the sentences, which seemed safer.
The real peril, though, lies in what you don’t know you don’t know.
My hero, Greg, started out as a chartered accountant, and in one scene he is doing Continuing Professional Development. (Stick with me, the scene is not as dull as that might imply.) Only, it turns out that in California what he’s doing would be called Continuing Professional Education – and he would be a certified public accountant, not a chartered accountant. It took me half of hour of Googling to determine why I couldn’t find any information on chartered accountants in the US!
Then there is the mistake that dwarfs all the others. In one scene, when the characters arrive in Reno they stop at a motel that is festooned in red, white and blue bunting and balloons, to celebrate July 1st. I wrote that, I read it, my mother read it, four beta readers read it. Alas, none of us is American, and only recently did I read it again, give a mental shriek and go, “Ack! It’s July 4th!” (In Canada, July 1st is Canada Day, a national holiday commemorating the birth of the country, and I think the date morphed into the US holiday in my mind.)
Just imagine the reviews on Amazon if that had gone through!
The worry now is, what other bloopers are lurking in Too Close? What else don’t I know that I don’t know?
How cool is this?
Today I discovered BookBuzzr, a book marketing tool. One of its features is a flipbook. You upload a PDF of your book, and it converts it to a flip book, complete with the ever-sexy interactive page curl.
Yes, it’s just a Flash file, and I could have done this myself with InDesign, but for the vast majority of people with neither the software nor the skills to do this themselves (or somewhere to host the file), this is a great little tool.
Check out this sample from ‘Ship to Shore’, if you’re curious about how it works. (If you do, be sure to click on ‘View Fullscreen’ when it loads, because I found it chopped off the top and bottom of the pages otherwise.)
I said I wouldn’t do it. What’s the point? Ship to Shore is hardly tearing up the best-seller charts (despite the addition of a penguin, which my editor assured me would guarantee the top of the New York Times list), so why write another novel?
But it seemed almost criminal to abandon all my hard-won knowledge of self-publishing. All the mistakes I made with Ship to Shore, in writing (head hopping!) and publishing (too soon!) and trying to spread the word (Twitter!), can be avoided this time around. I can’t believe I ever fell for the line that having a Twitter presence would help. The only followers I collected were other desperate self-published writers screaming “buy my book!!!” I can console myself with the knowledge that I never resorted to that.
So, here I am with novel number two.
Too Close is very different to Ship to Shore. None of those weird, off-putting tall ships for a start! It’s set in San Francisco and is about a couple who, after only six months, decide to marry and start a family. When he takes her home to meet his parents, they learn that his mother may also be her mother. Quite apart from the titillating spectre of incest that this raises, I wanted to explore how each of them reacts to this revelation and the effect it has on their relationship, on their families and friends, and on their relationships with their families and friends. (You can read more here.)
Which brings me to the two covers.
I started out with nine covers, but the initial poll narrowed it down to two. Two that are very, very different! One echoes the “couple walking on a beach” theme of Ship to Shore, and could set up my ‘brand’; the other very deliberately echoes the stark black/white/one accent colour of the mega sellers 50 Shades, Bared to You, etc.
So, now I must decide.
One of my beta readers told me that Too Close reminded her of a Jodi Piccoult-type novel in that it’s an exploration of a hypothetical situation that people sometimes think about; the “what if this happened to me?” scenario. I think the couple on the beach works with that interpretation.
The black/white/red feather cover might set up the wrong expectation. Unlike books with similar covers, Too Close is not part of a trilogy (as seems to be the trend at the moment), nor is it erotica, although there’s a lot more sex than in Ship to Shore and that feather does figure in two scenes!
I’ve got two seconds to grab a potential reader’s attention. Which will do the job best, the romantic couple on the beach or the intriguing, stylish black/white/red feather? As you can see from the watermark, I’m holding off on actually buying the couple on the beach image until I can make a decision.
If you’d care to leave a comment and let me know what you think, I’d appreciate it!
Oh yeah, and this time the penguins were part of the plot while the book was still in my head. I can’t fail, regardless of the cover!