Keeping Yourself Covered

Back in ye olde days of indie publishing, it used to be the work of moments to tell an indie title apart from a conventionally published one simply by looking at the cover.  The indie books would be the ones with no cover art, amateurish cover art, a hilariously bad CG image, or a photograph which only had a vague relevance to the subject matter.  But it was the story that mattered, right?

But in a saturated market, that simply won’t wash any more.  You need to be noticed and it’s as simple as that.  Simply consider how you purchase books yourself if you’re browsing for something new at Amazon.  You might narrow your search down to a genre you’re interested in and then you scroll down, glancing at the titles and the thumbnail cover images.  So if a book doesn’t have a cover that leaps out and grabs you, you’re not going to buy it.  And what’s more, it’s not enough to have a good cover image; you also have to put some thought into how effective that image is going to be when it’s shrunk down as a thumbnail, because that’s how most people are going to be exposed to it.  If it’s too murky or too busy, it’ll not be effective, no matter how gorgeous it is at full size.

Fortunately, these days it’s easier and more cost effective than ever before to source a really good cover, something that wasn’t the case a few years ago.  I want to give a few samples here from cover artists I have used and the experiences I’ve had with them, giving them a shout out so you may consider your needs for your own next cover art.

Rampant Dames cover finish

Rampant Damsels was the first book I self-published back in 2009 and I knew I wanted something special for it.  I scoured the Net trying to find an artist / cartoonist with the right style for the comedy fantasy image I wanted, who was open for commissions.  I eventually found the portfolio of British cartoonist Ian Baker, who produced the above masterpiece for me, costing me some £220 at the time if I recall correctly.  But it’s a beautiful image that meant I actually sold a few books, encouraging me to continue on instead of shriveling up and dying.  The image is colourful, striking, bold, simply composed so it stands out as a thumbnail, but full of detail at full size, and leaves the viewer in no doubt that the title exudes a kind of raunchy humour.

The next three covers I want to show were all prepared for me by a great guy on Fiverr named Boris.  He is fast, sources a wide selection of images based upon your brief and offers nine or ten alternate covers for you to choose from, he’s VERY cheap and a really great guy to work with, coming up trumps every time.

Vicars_and_Tarts_Version_3

‘Vicars and Tarts’ cover by Decovski

The first job I put his way was for erotic comedy novel Vicars and Tarts.  I had a few suggestions for the cover:  if possible, I wanted the colour to be a warm orange tone to suit the holiday theme of the novel; I wanted it to feature a Bible to reference the titular vicar, and a pair of lacy panties for the tarts; I also wanted these latter to be draped over a glass of red wine, as a reference back to the previous book in the series, Water Into Whine.  The above cover contained every single element I had asked for.  There was also an alternative, which in some ways I preferred, it being a photograph of a pair of panties draped over a glass of red wine.  However, it lacked the Bible and the orange tone.  I probably would still have gone for that alternative if I was judging purely by personal preference, but here’s where you have to be canny when selecting a book cover.  The cover chosen above was a much trendier, more modern style of image, and WOW, does it ever stand out as a thumbnail!  And these were the decisive factors.  The book sold relatively well right from launch and continues to do so, so I obviously chose well.

The Waters Of Life

Boris’ next commission for me was a much more sombre one, for the horror novel The Waters of Life.  For this, I specified a stone sarcophagus in a vault, with a sinister hooded figure, and just look at the macabre black and white stock photo Boris discovered for me and adorned with suitable title fonts!  Again, he provided several alternatives, some of which were great and very tempting, but this one is just so full of eerie menace it was a no-brainer.  It also reduces down to a suitably sinister and effective thumbnail.  It did the trick, the book sold instantly and well.

EARTH MOTHER

By now, I was becoming painfully aware of the shortcomings of some of my earlier novels which had never performed well, all of them with half-arsed cover designs.  It was time to start putting my house in order and relaunching some of these old titles with properly designed covers.  I began with a horror novel titled Earth Mother, which had never sold well at all, but which attracted raving reviews from the few people who did read it, so I knew the problem wasn’t with the writing.  Boris produced the above image based upon my description of the book, using the dark green colour tones I requested together with a bright green font and matching eyes for the Elemental horror, which really stand out and make a striking thumbnail image.  The results?  This cover only cost me £15, but in the three weeks since the book was relaunched it has sold more copies than in the previous three years!  Speaks for itself, doesn’t it?  Spending just a few quid on a decent cover can make that much difference!

I had been continuing to write new titles in the Damsels series in the meantime, and a couple of the middle titles in the range definitely need new covers now too, a job I’ll be getting round to.  But when I came to write the most recent, Damsels and the Dark Arts, I decided that it really needed a decent cover, something which would do it justice.  So I decided to commission an artist once again.  Some books just need original artwork and can’t be served by stock images and that’s just the way it is.  Once again, I wanted to find an artist who could really capture the look and feel of the characters and the books’ humour.  I scoured hundreds of fantasy artists on Deviantart before commissioning Kelsey Bigelow to produce the cover, pictured below.  She used the original Rampant Damsels cover as reference for the two main characters, but updated their clothing at my request, she included other elements I requested, such as the important skeleton key, she used the Tarot card ‘The Devil’ as a template for the image as suggested and gave the whole image a range of beautiful blue tones as I had specified.  Sheer perfection, probably my very favourite book cover ever!  The cost?  About $200.  Artists (and good ones) can be got for less, of course, but I was very choosy about getting an artist with a specific style.

dames and the dark arts cover

Damsels and the Dark Arts, cover art by Kelsey Bigelow

Most recently, I had another old novel recovered, this time my contemporary Celtic fantasy, The Wave Sweeper.  This one was done for me by Rachel McGrath, herself an exceptionally talented author and illustrator, who really succeeded in producing the goods here, as pictured below.  This was the first time I have opted for a cover image which wraps around the whole cover, and it’s extremely effective.  The imagery, fonts and colour tones are all illustrative of the book’s blend of warm melancholy.

The-Wave-Sweeper-3-page-001

These days, it’s not a struggle to find a highly capable cover artist and you don’t have to pay a fortune for it any more.  But it’s certainly not optional:  your book needs a decent cover if it’s to have any hope of selling.  My own experiences of the jump in sales after upgrading Earth Mother and The Wave Sweeper have proved just what a huge difference it makes.  Make sure it’s what you want, make sure it conveys the mood, and make sure it makes a good thumbnail!

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Oo-er, Vicar!

I’ve decided to offer a naughty little promotion for my two sex comedy novels, Water Into Whine and Vicars and Tarts.  Today is the end of one financial year and the beginning of the next, and my finances could certainly benefit with a boost.  So I’m offering a little incentive if enough people purchase these two titles during the next month (ending 6 May).

The two books in question are a little on the smutty side, in fact they’re mind-bogglingly saucy and as explicit as it gets.  But it’s all in good fun, with loads of laughs along the way.  Ultimately, they’re feel-good stories.  In Water Into Whine, the Grace family move to a rural village, where the unorthodox ministry of the local vicar, James Redders, and his wife Miriam raises more than eyebrows as they’re plunged into a wild world of sex and debauchery, but always with the utmost gentility.

In Vicars and Tarts, the Graces visit James and Miriam at his new posting on a Scottish island.  Here they help him to win the favour of the reluctant locals, using their swinging antics to swing opinions as they tackle strict puritans, New Agers and a Satanist landowner.  The results are as hot as they are hilarious.

So … if I can sell just 50 copies of these two books (either title counts as one sale; it’s two sales if you get both), I will have a souvenir photograph of myself taken down beside the sea, masquerading as a naughty vicar, wearing only spectacles, vicar teeth (as in the image below), a clerical collar, a pair of clown shoes and a wholly inadequate posing pouch.  This photo will be posted on this blog for all to see and variously swoon over, drool over, vomit over or laugh at.  Think of the high value:  it should be good for blackmail purposes for years to come!

If I can sell 100 copies between these two titles, I will post half a dozen such photos on this blog in a whole range of most provocative poses.

If I can sell 150 copies you might be able to persuade me to keep my clothes on!

author photo

Just for the record, Kindle Unlimited borrows will count as a purchase, but in order to clock up the necessary number of pages read, the book(s) would need to be read between the qualifying dates (5 April – 6 May).

Also for the record, I don’t normally sell anywhere near 50 copies of my fiction titles in a single month, so if you want to see me all pouched up and pouting, you’ll really need to share the shit out of this post and scream and yell at all your friends to get their acts together and buy these two books so that you can get hot and bothered with my photo (or laugh till your jaw aches – your choice).  So shout it out near and far, on Facebook and elsewhere.  Twist arms and pinch fleshy appendages until your victims submit!

And here’s where you can get them:

Water Into Whine –

Amazon UK, Paperback & Kindle Editions 

Amazon USA, Paperback & Kindle Editions 

Lulu, Paperback Edition

Lulu, Hardback Edition

Vicars and Tarts –

Amazon UK, Paperback & Kindle Editions

Amazon USA, Paperback & Kindle Editions

Lulu, Paperback Edition

Lulu, Hardback Edition

So don’t delay, and in the meantime I’ll go and choose my posing pouch!

The Anatomy of a Novel

How do you set about writing a novel?  How do you begin?  How do you plot it?  Is it all planned in advance, or do you just start writing and see where it takes you?  I get asked these questions a lot.  I suppose all writers do.  And I suppose the answers we give will be completely different for every one of us, because writing – and all creative pursuits – is very much an individual process between the creator and his / her creation.  But here, for the record, is how I do it, now that I’ve the experience of a fair few novels under my belt.

For the purposes of this blog, I’ll recount the stages in writing my current work in progress, a sex comedy / erotic novel titled ‘Vicars and Tarts’, a sequel to my earlier ‘Water Into Whine’.

The thing that comes first is the germ of an idea for the novel.  ‘Water Into Whine’ was never intended to have a sequel, but the characters were so good and it was obvious that they’d meet again.  When I started thinking about where they would be and what they would be doing a year later, the scenario suggested itself to me.  So the new novel is set on a Scottish island, where James Redders, the randy vicar from ‘Water Into Whine’, has set up his new ministry under a new name.  The Grace family from the first novel come to visit James and his wife on their island home, but find that he is experiencing difficulties thanks to three separate groups:  a hardline, puritanical group of churchgoers who object to James’ unconventional and liberal ministry; a pagan priestess whose charisma and orgiastic parties are keeping the younger islanders away from James’ church; and the local laird and landowner, who fancies himself a Satanist and thus despises James, meaning his tenants daren’t attend the services.  This gives me a great setting and an interesting scenario with three separate factions to deal with.  It provides a lot of scope for a sex comedy as the Graces try to help out their friend by tricking and seducing his opponents until he gets his way and fills the pews before the bishop visits to inspect how he’s getting on.

Now that I have the basics for a story idea, I start to really fill up my notebook with descriptions of the appearance and personalities of all the main characters and places.  I need to be truly able to see everything and everyone clearly in my mind’s eye before I start writing about them in the actual story.  I need to know how they talk and behave, their speech patterns, virtues and vices and how they’ll respond to everything that happens as the story unfolds.

Once I have these things clear in my mind and noted down, I look at the storyline and identify its main beats, ideally breaking it down into four quarters as I trace its developments.  The first quarter introduces the situation, characters and location; the second quarter steps up the interference from the antagonists; in the third quarter, our heroes go all out to struggle against the odds; this comes to a head in the final quarter, where things are resolved satisfactorily.  (I’m trying to be a little vague here and not actually give away ‘spoilers’.)

I then split the quarters down and allocate three chapters to each quarter.  I write two or three sentences (no more, as things can still be fairly fluid at this stage) describing what needs to happen in each chapter.  Since this is an erotic novel, I try to follow the same routine as its predecessor, ‘Water Into Whine’, by including the opportunity for at least one major sex scene in each chapter, with each chapter’s kinkiness ideally a touch more outrageous than the one before it.

I now have brief outlines for twelve chapters.  Now I have to decide the length of the book.  I want ‘Vicars and Tarts’ to be the same length as ‘Water Into Whine’, which was 60,000 words, just short of 200 pages in print.  With twelve chapters, that means I know from the outset that I have 5,000 words to describe the events of each chapter.  This helps a great deal in ensuring that the book is evenly paced and proceeds at a good rate, without any parts being too rushed or too dragged out.  It sometimes becomes necessary to slightly adjust the chapter contents and order as I write to make this work properly, but the framework I have laid down at this early stage makes it easy to make such adjustments and keep the book as a whole in proper balance.

The next step is optional.  Some people just number chapters (the majority of writers just number chapters, in fact), whilst some give them titles.  I like to give mine titles which are evocative and often incorporate plays on words, puns, distortions of popular sayings or movie titles, and other fun things.  In ‘Water Into Whine’, I included several chapters referencing the word ‘grace’, as this was the surname of the main family of characters.  I have continued this game with a couple of the chapter headings in ‘Vicars and Tarts’ for continuity reasons, plus adding a couple of references to Bishop Fort’s name.  Labelling the chapters again helps to give me a strong feel for the structure and pacing of the story.  The chapter titles for ‘Vicars and Tarts’ are as follows when I first note them down:

  1.  Vicars and Tartan
  2. Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing
  3. The Wee Tea Isnae Free
  4. Queen of All She Depraves
  5. “He’s Not the Antichrist, He’s a Very Naughty Boy”
  6. Fortified Whine
  7. Who Flagellates the Flagellants?
  8. Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead
  9. Grace and Favour
  10. The Worm That Turned
  11. Holding the Fort
  12. Amazing Grace

Naturally, some of these may change slightly (or completely) if something better suggests itself to me.  Also, the order may change.  At the time of writing this blog, I am writing chapter eight, and I have swapped the order of chapters 7 and 8, because it occurred to me that the sequence of events in the story would flow much, much better if I did so.

I like to be able to feel the ‘atmosphere’ of each book when I write it, and this includes attributing a symbolic colour to the book.  For ‘Water Into Whine’ this colour was a rich burgundy, which featured on the book cover and was mentioned several times during the narrative (several locations, such as the Hassalls’ manor, had burgundy decor).  For ‘Vicars and Tarts’, set on an island in August, I wanted a warm, sunset orange as the colour theme.

Speaking of colours leads to covers.  Learning the lesson of ‘Damsels and the Dark Arts’, my last novel, I ordered a cover for ‘Vicars and Tarts’ early.  A writer friend, Colin Griffiths, pointed me to a talented cover designer on Fiverr named Decovski, who prepared a selection of several potential covers for me to choose from.  I eventually selected the one illustrated below, because:  (1) it has the orange colour scheme; (2) it displays a wine glass and Bible, as also shown on the cover of ‘Water Into Whine’, providing continuity; (3) it is a very modern and striking cover and will stand out really well as a thumbnail on the Kindle store.

'Vicars and Tarts' cover by Decovski

‘Vicars and Tarts’ cover by Decovski

All of this sounds like a lot of preparation, but it generally only takes two or three days of thinking and note taking.  Then I’m ready to start writing, but the novel already has a solid structure in place, I just have to add the meat to the bones.  I’m able to concentrate on telling my story in the most evocative way, without having to stop and wonder what happens next.

I write 500 words in each writing session of approximately twenty – thirty minutes (rounded up to the nearest paragraph ending), and I write at least one session per day (if a workday), or three or four sessions on my days off.  So in total it will take me about six weeks to finish writing ‘Vicars and Tarts’.  Thereafter comes editing, of course, which is a whole different ball game.

There may still be surprises, of course.  Although I know what situations are going to arise, I haven’t planned out exactly how the characters are going to react.  The reason I bring them to full life in my imagination before I start writing is so that I can enjoy seeing what they do and say as the story unfolds.  Once you’ve established a solid character, you can leave it up to them.  This can often introduce surprising twists and turns in the narrative that you didn’t anticipate.  But unless your characters and situation were a complete mismatch in the first place, they’ll still get you to where you’re going, but in a far more genuine and colourful way than if you tried to force things.

So that’s how I do it.  Others definitely differ and there’s no right or wrong way.  There’s just what works for you.

Smut, Filth and Awkwardness

Sometimes I get nagged.  Perhaps all writers do.  “Why don’t you write such and such?  I’m sure it would do well.”  And of course, I grin and nod, then usually go my own way.  But last year, the pressure was persistent.  “Look at 50 Shades of Grey, it’s a bestseller.  You know that sex sells.  That’s what the public wants:  mummy porn.”

And it’s true, of course.  Sex does sell.  It’s no surprise to anyone that just about every other URL on the internet leads to a porn site.  It’s also true that an erotic book is infinitely more satisfying than a porn movie.  When provided with a good story, your own imagination can construct far more steamy and arousing situations than any number of performers (who invariably all look the same) slapping flesh and faking moans.  In your imagination, the characters possess those little features and quirks that turn YOU on; they don’t have to pander to the bland tastes of others.

So I decided to go for it.  I created my cast of characters, set up a scenario and sat down to write an erotic novel, titled Water Into Whine.

Water_Into_Whine_Cover_for_Kindle

I immediately found that nothing in the world is so difficult to write as a good sex scene, one that is genuinely arousing and turns people on, but is so perfectly balanced that it doesn’t become simply ridiculous.  I don’t think my command of language has ever been so rigorously challenged as when I had to select the right words to keep the reader’s attention fixed right on the brink, before desire collapses into derision.  Erotica – good erotica, that is – is the hardest thing in the world to write.

The only way to approach this problem is to show respect for your novel and treat it as a worthwhile story, not just a piece of smut.  I carefully crafted my characters.  They were all flawed human beings, but all were likeable and relatable, they weren’t supermodels or hunks.  And in spite of all the situations and experiences they had in the novel, they all emerged from it as better people, with relationships that had benefitted from events; the feelgood factor was important to me.

It also helped a great deal to make sure that there was plenty of humour in the story.  Water Into Whine is not a comedy, but it certainly has its tongue in cheek.  Any book which chooses a vicar as its lustful leading man is always going to raise an eyebrow.

This combination of likeable characters and a whiff of humour allowed me to write the (numerous) sex scenes without missing a beat.  They fitted perfectly into the narrative and kept the book steamy and hot throughout, each chapter managing to go a step further than the chapter before it, raising the temperature all the while.

When I had finished, I asked if I had succeeded in emulating 50 Shades of Grey.  I didn’t know, as I hadn’t – and still haven’t – read it.  “Well,” said one lady who had just read my offering, “In book 3, she hints at things that you feature in chapter 1”.

I sat down and reread Water Into Whine the other day, returning to it after a year away.  I spotted three typos (some of those little buggers always manage to slip through, no matter how hard you try!), but I genuinely felt that I had created something truly arousing and ultimately heartwarming.  I am very, very proud of it.

The reason I reread it was that I am now penning a sequel, cheekily titled Vicars and Tarts.  I’m hoping I can recapture the same mix of good humour, steamy sex and human warmth that so characterised Water Into Whine.  I hope you’ll all love it as much as I do.

To celebrate this fact, I’d like to close this blog with a photo of myself as a vicar for your erotic excitation … or not.

author photo