Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

I admit it – I have neglected this blog quite shamefully and it is almost exactly a year since my last post. Having our house on the market for two years and attempting to keep both house and large country garden under control for viewings took much of my time. But the main reason for not posting was that I had run out of things to say about writing and the writers’ condition. The online writing sites that I have used for the last twelve years or so have fallen into what can only be described as the doldrums and I have perceived a general lack of enthusiasm for giving and receiving feedback in this remote fashion.

That is not to say people aren’t being busy and successful! On the positive side, many members of my favourite site have now been published or have agents and potential publishing deals, so the process of online reviews has clearly been working well. I have had a few small successes of my own, including several shortlistings in Flash500, acceptance of a story into Twisted Tales 2016 and – tarantara – I won the Worcestershire Literary Festival’s Flash Fiction competition, with another story shortlisted. So that was nice! Sadly, the announcement was made at the launch of the Festival and, since I couldn’t be there because of moving house, one of the judges had to read my winning story. But there you go. I’ll be reading both stories at the launch of the anthology on Sunday 20th November, all being well.

The reason for posting now is that I have joined an actual live writing group in my small town and thought it was an opportunity to share this new experience. It’s a five-minute walk to the weekly venue so I have no excuse for not turning up, apart from family commitments, disasters and holidays. I have only been to one meeting so far because of the first of these, but I did do the homework, which is limited to 500 words on each occasion. I had also done the homework for my first meeting: to write a love scene.

My first thought on the subject was – AAARRRGGGHHH! I would never put myself in the position of writing such a thing, especially if it were to contain sex. I don’t enjoy reading sex scenes and I can’t imagine the horror of writing one. But when I had calmed down, I realised that a love scene needn’t contain sex and that many of my very short stories are love scenes of one sort or another. So I wrote a new one and read it aloud when my turn came around. It went down well, with hoots of laughter in all the right places, along with a collective groan at one intentionally sickly bit and even a tear from one member at the end. Who could ask for more? I also got some useful feedback, which I have used to tighten it up for submission to Flash500.

I was very impressed by the general standard of writing – and reading – within the group and all the feedback was pertinent and kindly given. Having become used to somewhat more brutal treatment via online groups, this made a refreshing change. But I do want the truth, 100% of the time. Anything else is of little use, but I must be careful how I phrase any criticisms. Coming from Yorkshire, this isn’t really in my DNA…

So my first experience of the writing group was overwhelmingly positive. My only problem arose during the usual end-of-session five-minute writing challenge. The topic was ‘a message to a particular member who is sick’ and could take any form. The fact that I had never met this person shouldn’t have been the barrier it became, but my mind went completely blank and I didn’t write a single word. The others managed some very entertaining, irreverent and poignant poems and prose and I felt really stupid for not producing anything.

This failure probably wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows how I work. I’m not a jotter or drafter. If I have an idea for a story, I let it grow and develop in my mind until it is either forgotten or emerges fully formed and largely edited after a period of days, weeks or even months. I am extremely intimidated by the idea of writing ‘on-the-spot’, especially when everyone else gets their heads down and starts scribbling. It’s my recurrent exam nightmare all over again! When my turn to ‘show’ came round, I explained my predicament and was met with understanding and reassurance. Somebody said that the group is a safe place in which to try things out and no one should be anxious about any perceived failure, because it is about having a go and gradually building confidence. I hope I fare better on Thursday when the next challenge is set but if I don’t, I’m not going to beat myself up. I’ve managed three lots of homework on a given topic, something that is normally outside my ‘comfort zone’ – note the inverted commas, because the latest assignment is a maximum of 500 words using as many cliches as we can squeeze in. I’m not sure how this exercise benefits our writing but I’ve done it anyway. So I am already stretching myself a little further than usual and if the only benefit to my writing is that I achieve the odd submittable piece, it will be a good result.

I ought also to mention that it is lovely to meet new people and to share an experience, doing something at which we all want to improve. So no minuses, really. It gets me out of the house and away from the computer for a couple of hours and I heartily recommend it. So far…

Watch this space.

If you have any experiences of writing groups you’d like to share, please post a comment. Go on – scare me!

I recently posted a new flash story of 500 words in my online writers’ group and received a number of critiques. These ranged as ever from ‘I really liked this! Perfectly judged,’ to (more or less) ‘I don’t really get it’. This is very much the nature of writers’ groups and is often an indication of the writing styles of other members rather than their ability to offer constructive criticism, but it led me to ponder the issue of ambiguity in fiction.

I love an unreliable narrator – it’s my favourite thing, both to read and to create (see Crossed Lines, Mother’s Pride etc). While it must be quite hard to keep it going over the course of a novel (I’m currently reading Gone Girl and am finding the clues a bit heavy-handed but check out The Dinner by Herman Koch for one of the best examples) it is relatively easy in very short fiction.

Even if I write a story in the third person, I like to create some ambiguity so that readers have to join some dots for themselves. I much prefer this approach when I’m reading someone else’s work rather than have everything laid out for me on a plate, because it then includes me as an active participant in the story and brings the reading experience to life.

But where do you draw the line? What proportion of readers need to ‘get’ it to let the writer know he or she has done enough ‘signposting’? Perhaps I am too cavalier about this, but if only one reader clocks it, I am well on the way to letting the story go as it stands. However, if a critic indicates that a tweak in a particular place will enhance the tension and lay another subtle clue, I am definitely and gratefully up for that.

Last year I parodied the Government’s hideous bedroom tax with a flash by the same title. I set out to be completely ambiguous in an effort to create mystery and humour, and was rewarded by this comment from John Hudspith, writer and editor: The huge level of intrigue and boundless possibility almost made my brain explode, and I just know I’ll have some good nightmares tonight. So thanks for that. As for the title I wouldn’t change a thing. It sits there like the malicious tin opener it really is.’ It was the perfect reaction, yet another reviewer wanted more clues! Which proves that it is down to you to assess and decide which type of reader you’re writing for. The Bedroom Tax was published last year in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology, Eating my Words but you can read it here. I would love to have your comments if you have a minute.

For myself, physical details are rarely necessary or desirable in very short fiction, where every word counts, unless it has a crucial part in the story. I might mention grey hair or gnarled hands if I want to indicate age, but not so the reader can see a character if appearance is unimportant to the meaning of the piece. The shorter the piece, the more implications each sentence has to carry to earn its place in the whole. Where a novel may take a whole chapter to reveal a critical character trait, flash fiction must achieve the same reader understanding in a couple of sentences. There is no time to dwell on eye colour!

So I will continue to put my stories up for criticism on the understanding that the same people will like them and the same ones will always need a fuller explanation. When those who usually ‘get it’ also need an explanation, that’s when I’ll know I’ve got more work to do. Just because I know what’s going on, doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve put it across. Hooray for second opinions!

In other news, I’m pleased to report that my flash, Message Understood  made the final twelve to be published in this year’s Twisted Tales anthology, so many thanks to the judges. I have also just heard that all three of my 300-word submissions to the Worcestershire Literary Festival flash fiction anthology will be published! I am obviously beyond thrilled about this. A Stash of Flashes will be available in October and launched with readings in November. More details on that nearer the time.

My reading in Bristol went really well to a packed house and I had lots of lovely comments. I decided on Bye Bye Blackbird in the end, which you can read here.

And that’s it for now. All comments and criticisms cheerfully received!

FlashFlood was bigger and certainly better than ever this time – many thanks for all your entries, and to Calum Kerr (Mr Flash Fiction) and my fellow editors. Social media was used very effectively by contributors and we really were flooded with flashes. The standard of submission has soared since our first outing and, in the case of some writers, all three submissions were of such a high quality, it almost impossible to choose one – a very nice problem for an editor to have. If you got more than one story accepted, hats off!

Now that the dust has settled, I thought it might be a good idea to reflect again on what makes a good piece of flash fiction. But first, because the list is shorter, it may be helpful to say what flash fiction is not.

It is not a stream of consciousness that begins and ends in an arbitrary time and place, unless you are particularly adept at guiding your readers through a series of experiences to their satisfaction. There must be an underlying purpose with thoughts juxtaposed in such a way that the reader feels the undercurrents of emotion, links the ideas, and understands the meaning, otherwise it is an aimless and self-indulgent ramble. Despite the poetic nature of the prose, there were several stories that left me wondering, what the heck was all that about?

The other thing flash is not is a truncated novel. Simply relating a series of happenings in an arc with a beginning, middle and end but without the depth of character and plot development a novel allows, does not constitute a satisfying piece of flash. Again, the underlying themes must convey meaning and intent: it has to be about something more than what is sitting on the surface. We turned away some very well-written pieces because they made no impression – they were just carefully arranged words.

So what is flash? If I had to sum it up in one sentence I’d say it is a piece of writing, however short, that makes the reader think beyond the words.

This means a good flash will imply a before and after (though not necessarily at the beginning and end) and will be understated, yet have the richness and depth conveyed in longer pieces. It often presents as a pivotal scene, at the end of which the reader should be in no doubt that something has irrevocably changed.

As ever, there were some common themes running through this year’s entries, the most popular being death and dying. This is bound to be the case because it is a universal fact and obsession but, this time round, I was very impressed by the diverse directions from which our contributors approached their subject. It was treated with mystery, yearning, anger, sadness and even comedy.

The other common theme, not entirely unrelated to the above, was the degradation of the environment. This is something that most of us are assimilating into our thoughts, so it isn’t surprising. In fact, I expect to see a lot more of it. However, most of these stories took a very literal approach – of landscapes and wildlife devastated by human greed. There seems to me to be a wealth of interesting and entertaining ways this theme could be tackled and I hope, next time round, to read some.

The mechanics of good story-telling are well documented but in flash fiction it is more than usually important to kick off with a crackingly good sentence – one that pulls the reader in and plunges him or her into the middle of a situation. In other words, it is essential to start the story in the right place. How the situation is resolved (or not) must be satisfying and integral to the story but not necessarily a foregone conclusion.

The title’s importance is often overlooked. Make it work for you. Don’t waste words but use it as a subliminal signpost for your readers to carry throughout at the back of their minds. Several titles felt tacked on as an afterthought, which is a trick missed.

I hope these thoughts are of interest and will help in your quest to write the perfect piece of flash fiction. Please do have a read through some of the Journal and take what you can in tips from the successful entries.

We will be doing it all again to coincide with National Flash Fiction Day on 27th June, so please add the link to your bookmarks and send your brilliant new flashes when we open for submissions. We’ll look forward to reading them!

The pleasure and the pain of Peer Review

I’ll begin by saying I doubt I would still be writing if I hadn’t been introduced to peer review by my good friend Simon Kewin back in 2008. The fact that he simultaneously gave up on it, finding it a block to his creativity, simply indicates the difference between our levels of writing experience at that time. He had already had over fifty stories published and I had just written my first, of which I was extremely (and mistakenly) proud. My introduction to You Write On was a baptism of fire but one for which I will be forever grateful. Today I am a member of four peer review sites, two public and two private, each of which has different benefits and drawbacks.

There are dozens of peer review sites available but for those who have never put their work up for public scrutiny, I would recommend YWO as a first step. This is how it works: you join, upload a short story or the first 7,000 words of a novel and your submission goes into a pot and takes its turn to be assigned to a reviewer. While you are waiting, you request an assignment and pick something from your daily choice of six stories to review. You rate the piece over eight categories and write a review that (hopefully) justifies those scores. It takes a while to get the hang of it but you soon learn how to give useful feedback and this in turn helps your own writing. It sounds ideal – you get free reviews and, if you apply the best advice, you can improve your writing at a much faster rate than if you sat alone filing rejections from agents and publishers. And, because there is a ratings chart that can win your piece a free appraisal by a publishing professional, there is an outside chance you will be ‘discovered’. However, to get to this stage, unless you have a rare and universally-recognised talent, there will be some unpalatable medicine to swallow along the way.

The pitfalls arise from the nature of the site. The competitive aspect adds excitement but brings out the worst in some people. They may praise your work to the skies but score you low because they believe this will scupper your chances of beating them to their coveted top ten place. Unfortunately for them, although the scores aren’t revealed, you can work them out by keeping a chart if you are so inclined. This leads to bitter complaints and arguments on the message boards but since there is a 1-in-5 removal option the writer can use to delete a useless or low-scoring review, the effects of ‘sabotage’ reviews are largely mitigated.

Another problem arises from the proportion of inept feedback that is bound to occur on a free, public site. You have to be realistic about the depth and range of feedback you will receive from amateurs, who may actually be incapable of writing a coherent review or story themselves. Not surprisingly, the varying quality of reviews  loosely reflects the varying quality of submissions. If you are baffled by the feedback you receive, take a quick peek at the reviewer’s own work…

As a direct result of both of the above, occasionally inner, or ‘knitting’, circles form, ostensibly to ensure that these members get more useful feedback (and better scores) than the outsiders. They get pally via the message boards or email and then try and ‘catch’ one another’s work to ‘save’ it from sabotage or useless reviews. If the circle gets big enough, it can begin to skew the charts and certainly affects the chances of receiving poor feedback if you are not one of the chosen few. Luckily this isn’t a regular occurrence.

All this nonsense aside, if you do go onto a site like YWO, you can strike gold; not necessarily by beating your way to the top of the charts, but by honing your craft, steadily improving with each upload. And the more work you put into reviews you give, the more experience you gain to apply to your own work. It’s win-win if you use the opportunities to full advantage. You will also grow a skin as thick as that on school custard so eventually you learn not only to thank every reviewer (good, bad or ugly) for their comments, but relish the insight into your writing that can help elevate it to a higher league.

Chances are that even if you make the top ten and win a ‘pro-crit’, you will not come away with a publishing deal. Only a handful of members have achieved one over the last six years. What you will get is a privileged view into what the professionals are looking for. Having had a good number of these I know that the more critical they are, the more useful they will be. Since my work only comprises complete stories, I have often received a very handy overview of what works and what doesn’t.

The other public site I belong to is Readwave. This is completely different to You Write On and has no competitive element. It is essentially a showcase for very short stories and true-life articles, which anyone can read and comment on. As such, there is little opportunity or appetite for in-depth criticism and most comments tend to be of the ‘I really loved this’ kind, possibly in the hope they will be reciprocated. As one of the team of Staff Reviewers, I tend to venture a couple of suggestions that I think will improve the writing/story but avoid rigorous analysis, tempted though I may be. Most of the time the writer leaves the piece exactly as it is and, frustrating as that may be, I have learned over the  years to shrug and say, “Well, it’s their story.” It won’t win any prizes, but that’s not really why they are there. They simply want to be read and ‘discovered’. And some stories/writers are. One piece  recently ‘went viral’, achieving 20,000 hits in one day! You can read it here.

Private sites are a different species altogether. Membership is by introduction or invitation and all the members have reached a certain level of competence in their writing and criticism. This brings problems of its own, strange as that sounds. When receiving criticism it is vital that you learn which to follow and which to ignore. If you are writing for the pleasure of the activity rather than to complete a novel, it may push you into producing something that isn’t really yours and with which you have no affinity. It is a trickier judgment when your reviewers are experienced, published and respected authors. But they are not YOU and they are not writing YOUR book. You still have to trust your instincts! What you do get on private sites is a small group of people who get to know your work and who can home in on your weaknesses – the ones you knew were there but were hoping to get away with – with accuracy and regularity. There is also the benefit of having several people read a whole novel and give an overview. I recommend it as the next step when your mixed bag of reviews on your open site starts to send you round in circles.

Eventually many writers suffer from review-fatigue and consequent boredom with writing in general. Several experienced writers I know have found that, over time, the act of picking writing apart can suck the fun out of the creative process and even from reading for pleasure. This is one of the greatest dangers of peer review. Strategic breaks and writing in different formats can help but a degree of honesty and self-knowledge is needed at this point. Do you continue to belong to crit sites because you still want/need help with your work or because you are addicted to the message boards and enjoy the support of virtual (and actual) friends? Is your writing and output improving or suffering as a result of your involvement?

Simon decided six years ago that peer review was having a detrimental effect on his writing and has gone from strength to strength since making the decision to go it alone, while I still need to be told that what I have written is a coherent story and not just a piece of semi-realised waffle. But these days I only need opinions from a couple of trusted people whose work I admire before sending it out into the world. Although my activity on YWO has dwindled to  nothing, I will always be thankful for what I have received there, including my rhinoceros hide.

So that’s my advice to new writers who opt for the bumpy road of peer review: give as much as you can and accept what is offered with grace and joy. If you do, you won’t regret it.

***

If anyone would like to provide a link to their recommended peer review site, please add it below with a few words of description. On the other hand, if there is one to avoid feel free to say why. Thanks!

This week I had the pleasure of choosing a winning story from the seven shortlisted entries in Southville Writers’ first open competition. Having just submitted some hundred-word stories to a comp myself, I was eager to see what others could do in so few words. The only stipulation was that an aspect of Bristol must be mentioned somewhere along the way.

I was impressed by all the stories, particularly by the strong sense of history that permeated most of them. Although I take part in the selection of flash fiction for NFFD’s Flash Flood, this is the first time I have had to choose one story over another and, let me tell you, it isn’t easy! However, one story stood out immediately and kept its place during many subsequent readings. Those that seemed quite light — almost abstract — at first, revealed more depths and insights with each visit.

I have permission to post the winning story and the runner-up with my comments. If you’d like to read my thoughts on all the shortlisted pieces, please visit Southville Writers’ website. Congratulations to Ali and Pauline and many thanks for letting me post your great little stories on my blog!

FROM THE ARNOLFINI by Ali Bacon

The yellow boat called Blackbird beaks its way through chill and choppy waters. The crew are raw and clumsy, rowing for dear life. Crowds on the quay look once and turn away, expecting more than this as entertainment.

Watching from five floors up, we are warm, remote, content to chart its progress.

‘Look, boat,’ says the toddler on my lap.

‘Its name is Blackbird.’

‘No, yellow boat,’ he says.

A scuff of wind, a missed stroke, a wobble that goes way beyond correction.

Excitement at last.

‘Look, look! Yellow blackbird drowning.’

***

My comment:  this was the story that made me want to punch the air and shout, ‘Yes!’ From the moment the Blackbird ‘beaks’ through the water, I knew I was in safe hands. In a few words, the writer conveyed a place, an event, a relationship, the human condition, humour and pathos. The winner – I couldn’t ask for more!

Ali Bacon lives in South Gloucestershire where she reads, writes and reviews on http://alibacon.com. When she isn’t writing she knocks a small white ball round a golf course and makes strictly unserious attempts at ballroom dancing. Her debut novel A Kettle of Fish is a roller-coaster family drama set in Scotland. E-book and paperback from Amazon. A Kettle of Fish on Facebook Ali on Twitter @AliBacon

EXPECTING THE MOON TO TANGO by Pauline Masurel

“Come doon y’daft wee hinnie and dance with me!”

He brandishes the rose. She beams serenely down from lofty height. Her silvery-blue skirts shine bright against dim expectations of the sky. He shakes off his donkey jacket, slips fleetly across Castle Green, smooching frost-spangled silence in the crook of his arm.

One of these nights she will though, you can tell. She gazes longingly at dented snow. She’d love to dance, really she would, and after a sniff or two of whisky he’s the only man alive who knows her secret.

“Don’t be shy lassie,” he croons, “I’ll nae tell.”

***

My comment: I loved this story, for the sharply visual nature of the writing and a peep inside the imagination of a joyful drunk. This was my runner-up because, although I enjoyed the beautifully rendered Scottish dialect, a more local accent would have placed the piece more firmly in the area.

Pauline Masurel lives in the rural borderlands of Bristol. She is a gardener who writes short and very short fiction. She often performs her work in the Bristol and Bath areas. There’s more about her writing on her website http://www.unfurling.net and you can find her on Twitter @unfurlingnet.

If anyone is based in the Bristol area and would like to join the group, visit their website or pop along to one of their very friendly events. There’s one coming up on 16th April and yours truly will be there.

Kindle or Swindle?

Posted: October 22, 2011 in Opinion

It was my birthday on Thursday and, against all his instincts, my husband bought me a Kindle. My son bought me a lovely black case to keep it in. Both gifts remain in their boxes. 

I haven’t yet been seduced by the feel of the object in my hand, its smooth curves and buttons waiting to be pressed. I am resisting temptation on that front because I am as susceptible to elegant, functional design as anyone else.

I am waiting for someone to give me a reason to want it and, if they can convince me, I will break the seal and hope it doesn’t turn out to be the white elephant I fear. I ought to say at this point that, except for the odd piece of Toblerone or glass of wine, I rarely want something unless I need it.

I did a brief canvass of Kindle-owners a few weeks ago and came to the conclusion that, although they love them, the reasons why are woolly. I’m sure Kindles could be invaluable – I imagine students at school and college would much prefer to carry one small item instead of lugging great tomes around and creating back problems for the future. And it’s true that members of a book group can all upload the same book at a fraction of the usual paper cost. But I don’t belong to a book group.

So, why do I need a Kindle? Here are some of the other reasons I have been given for keeping it, and my instant reactions. Feel free to shout abuse at my reasoning.

FOR: It is small enough to carry in a handbag for instant access to reading material, any time, anywhere.

AGAINST: So is the average paperback. And it doesn’t need a fancy case to stop it getting damaged. And dropping it in the bath wouldn’t be a major disaster.

FOR: There is no glare.

AGAINST: I’ve never had a book glare at me yet. The first one that does will find itself at the back of a cupboard with its corners turned down.

FOR: Books can be uploaded really cheaply – so cheaply that it doesn’t matter if they never get read.

AGAINST: Have we got more money than sense? My spouse paid £111 for this baby and it’s going to take a bloody long time to claw that back. Compare it with the three-books-for-a-pound deal at my annual village fete and I think it’s obvious which makes more financial sense. On top of which, I can take them back the following year (a small percentage unread at 33.3p each) and make a donation to village hall funds at the same time. £111 would buy me 333 paperbacks which, at roughly ten a year, will last me 33.3 years – rather longer than I expect to inhabit this body. It would take a hundred years at thirty five books a year to read all the books the Kindle is capable of storing. Is it just me or are some people in denial about their own mortality?

And here’s a novel idea – I can go to my local library (yes, I’m still lucky enough to have one) and read a book of my choice for FREE, unless it’s Blood Meridian, which cost me so much in fines over the three months it took to read it that I could almost have bought my own copy.

FOR: The latest releases can be uploaded much cheaper than their paper equivalent so I could be right up to the minute with the literary Joneses.

AGAINST: Except for reviewers, who on earth needs to read a book in the first year of its release? Will it cease to be good five years on? I read Gulliver’s Travels a hundred and fifty years after it was written and it remains one of the freshest, wittiest and most pertinent satires I’ve ever read. And, if I’m so desperate I can’t wait for my birthday or Christmas for the latest thrilling AS Byatt, I can get the library to order a copy. For nothing!

Quite apart from this, I have a suspicion that having everything immediately – no waiting or delicious sense of anticipation – not only creates a restless and dissatisfied society, but is making life whizz by at an ever-increasing rate. I want to slow it down if anything!

FOR: I could upload the ebooks written by friends and acquaintances that haven’t been released in print, some of which are free.

AGAINST: True. This is the trickiest one and puts me at most risk of offending someone. What it boils down to is that I’m never going to be able to read (and reread) all the books I want to anyway, so this is one way of narrowing it down. I usually borrow books I’m recommended, otherwise I can take pot luck with new and familiar authors at the fete. I got into the recycling habit when I commuted to central London every day for twenty years and got through fifty plus novels a year. I bought and sold them at the second-hand stalls under Waterloo Bridge and consequently read many wonderful books I might never otherwise have heard of. So, apologies to my fellow writers – it’s nothing personal.

FOR: There is no need to cut down trees for paper, which makes e-reading more environmentally friendly.

AGAINST: True again, but many forests are planted specifically for that purpose and wouldn’t otherwise exist. And young trees absorb the most carbon dioxide. When a paperback comes to the end of its readable life, it can be pulped and used for newsprint and toilet paper. Try burying an obsolete Kindle when you can’t resist the spinky new singing, dancing colour model available next month in the US, and see how long it takes to rot down. Not to mention any minerals used in the making that might have been mined by children (or have subsidised war) in the third world, as they are for some mobile phones. Eco-friendly? Who knows.

And let’s not fool ourselves; another massive corporation is making a fortune out of this. That’s worth a protest, isn’t it?

In spite of all the above, I am still wavering and a present is a present…

So, should I open the box? Or take the money and put it back in the coffers for winter fuel?

I’d love to hear your reasons for either wanting or loving a Kindle. Perhaps someone can make me set aside my doubts and rip that seal open. You’ve got 24 hours to convince me, should you choose to accept the challenge.

My husband and I lay in bed last night reading our books, as usual. He said, “Can you imagine if we were both lying here holding Kindles?”

We paused, smiled, and carried on reading.

Let’s suppose you’ve spent two or three years writing a novel. You’ve put your baby up for a public slapping at the hands of complete strangers, edited, rewritten, gone into a six-month decline during which you couldn’t even bring yourself to open the file, pulled yourself together, rewritten once more to be on the safe side, and decided to publish and be damned. It’s been a long, long journey.

And now it’s time for the crowning glory, the icing on the cake. The cover. You’re brimming with great ideas. After all, you’ve given birth to this baby – who can do a better job than you? You’ve got a design application of sorts on your computer, you know how to manipulate pictures in Photoshop using all those fantastic artistic effects, and you’ve got 1,200 (yes, twelve hundred) fonts to choose from. And if that’s not enough, you can download unlimited free ones. There must be something with hair growing out of it that will go really well with your photoshopped polar bear-into-a-yeti!

You create a document the right size and get all the elements into the space. Some of the words don’t read very clearly, so you change them to red. No, blue. Plain black’s best, isn’t it? Should your name be in the same font as the title? At the top or bottom? Ranged left, right or centred? Maybe it’s a bit too hairy. Is it that important, just as long as it’s nice and big? Now you’ve finished. You print it out on best coated paper and show your mum when she comes round with the washing you haven’t had time to do while you’ve been creating your masterpiece. Her eyes mist.

“Oh, it’s lovely, dear,” she says. “I never knew you were so artistic. You should have gone to art school.”

With this endorsement, you send your completed book off to your POD supplier and order a crate-full. They print exactly what you sent. Hmmm. That black type makes it look a tad funereal and it still doesn’t read too well. And there’s a bit of a line where you grafted on the yeti’s head. Not to worry. The blurb will hook the readers in, won’t it? Well… maybe, maybe not.

Here’s my question. Would you save up for months to buy a designer dress then cover it up with a baggy old cardi (for men less in touch with their feminine side, insert lovingly restored vintage car and Pound Shop seat covers)? Of course you wouldn’t, so you get what I’m trying to say?

The advent of self-publishing has given everyone a chance to indulge their creative side, often at the expense of the credibility of their product. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that the majority of homemade covers look just that – homemade – albeit the finish is glossy. Or matt, for preference.

This isn’t a cake for the village fete, destined to be consumed within the hour! It is the ambassador for your writing; for the novel that has wrung you dry. It is going to hang around on your coffee table for years, making you wish you’d spent a bit of hard-earned cash to make it look the marvel it is. Doesn’t it – don’t you – deserve better?

Graphic designers have had a lean time in recent years, as typesetters and illustrators did before them. Home computers mean that anyone can produce something colourful with a superficially slick finish. Business owners (or their offspring) now design their own logos, brochures and advertisements. Whether it’s good design is another matter. Standards, needless to say, have plummeted.

Designers are professionals – they go to college for four years, learn the history and context of design, are trained, often up from a lowly junior position, accepting poor wages in return for knowledge. They have insight – a talent for knowing what works and what doesn’t, and an inbuilt sense of colour, form and balance, which is greatly enhanced by experience. They understand that for a design to work, there must be tension – a relationship – between the elements. They take risks but know when to stop. They can’t explain how, they just know.

So, if someone who isn’t in a creative industry asks someone who is what they can do to improve their DIY cover artwork, it’s a fair bet the answer isn’t going to be hopeful. Only rarely will it be a case of simply changing the colours. Bin it and seek the services of a professional could (and should) be the response.

At the risk of appearing to be touting for work, which I’m not, this is my advice. When you’re ready, contact a designer. Go by recommendation and ask to see samples of their work. Tell them your ideas and ask for a price. Most designers will tailor their costs to suit the client, whether you need a full-blown presentation and selection of covers from which to choose, or the relatively simple realisation of your own idea. Choose carefully and make sure they understand your needs and desires. Don’t accept anything you’re not happy with, but be guided by their expertise – a good designer will know best.

Don’t, in short, get out the twenty-first century equivalent of gummed paper shapes and do it yourself, unless you’re prepared for the consequences. The buying public, you’ll find, does judge a book by its cover.

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Although I am a graphic designer with 35 years’ experience, I have only designed a few book covers so far, including my own project, Triclops – see left.  I’d be happy to recommend an excellent designer if you leave contact details.