Musings

Weekly Musing: Take a Look at This

Book covers are a big deal. It’s what we, the reader, see first and if it’s attractive enough, prompts us to pick up the book. In addition to the basics like the author and title, we spend a lot of our time looking at the cover art.  After all it’s supposed to tell us what kind of book is in our hands. Is it an adventure novel with a ship tossed about in a violent storm? Is it a bodice-ripper with half naked people in awkward positions? Is it a YA book with an emotional teen on the cover? So much information is conveyed just by looking at the book cover, if anything, more than the blurb does.  At least nowadays with everyone having the attention span of a gnat.

With this in mind, I began thinking what personally draws my eye to a book. To be honest, I can’t recall what the covers of my favorite books look like because well, books go through cover changes. When I examine the covers in my own library, I notice what I appreciate most are simple covers. For example, I love these covers for my editions of the Outlander series, Pillars of the Earth, and A Song of Ice and Fire because it’s just a solid color background with an item meant to represent something about the novel’s world. Understated perfect for such sweeping epics. No need to clutter up the front with noise.

And I don’t think this pared down approach to book cover design is strictly for epics, I’m noticing it a bit more on some sci-fi books. The Humans by Matt Haig has an oddly wonderful cover. A human nose against a white background. Intriguing, what in the world is this about? It’s only when you read the book does the cover make a lot of sense. Or Lock In by John Scalzi. Again, very simple design with what appear to be white and red plastic figures. Why are some of them red? Only by reading the book does that cover make a lot more sense.

That’s the brilliance of a well-designed book cover. Don’t crowd it with lots of images or colors. Focus on one thing for the reader’s mind to linger over long enough to grab them. Of course publishing is a business which means they have marketing departments who do their homework analyzing what sells, what doesn’t, what is trendy, etc. when designing a cover. Each genre has it tropes and there are even gender biases in place to supposedly help us readers. Yet when covers stray from the expectation, I think that energizes a reader and cast the net out to a wider audience.

This is something to keep in the back of my mind as I hope to move forward in my writing career. When I get to point where I have a book(s) published, I’d like to see the covers of my book have the simplicity I admire. I don’t want them to fit into the trendy tropes of the time, why should I? If a book is to be hugely successful, its cover should strive to appeal to the general public rather than a specific group.

Simplicity in cover book art also creates this notion of timelessness. How many books have we picked up at a book store or yard sale or at the library with covers from previous decades? Nine times out of ten they look cheesy and dated. Admittedly some have some wonderful artwork and style a niche group appreciates today. However, most look so bad you may stay away from it as a reader. Shallow as it may sound, we humans are a visual bunch and we do judge a book by its cover so let’s keep it simple.

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Musings

Weekly Musing: Retirement Home

This week’s musing is inspired partially by a book I recently in addition to my own observations and discussions of writers and general readers alike. Of late I’ve been thinking more and more about tropes I see in books or in the shows and movies I watch. A few months ago I touched upon tropes in romance that make me not want to read much in that genre, but this musing is much more general.

Recently I finished Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett and while it kind of confused me and I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not as a reader, as a writer I appreciated what the author did. The book centers around a trio of witches and it is immediately clear these are not your typical witches and this book isn’t going to be your typical mash-up of fairy tales and fantasy. He twists so many of those tropes on their heads that it honestly keeps the reader guessing at how it will end.

This got me thinking about tropes I see a lot of that really annoy the hell out of me. Below are some of those I wish would be retired, or at the very least, if they continue to be employed, take a cue from Pratchett and others and flip the script.

Lying: I don’t know why but I’m noticing this in a lot of late. When I say lying, I’m referring to the kind where one character doesn’t want to tell another character, usually a loved one, a secret because they want to protect them. Yet they have no problem being truthful to a relative stranger or a new acquaintance mainly because that new person has quickly figured out what the big secret is from the start. Naturally wayyyyyyyyyyyy too much time is devoted to whether or not the loved one(s) will find out/be told the secret. Spoiler alert: Yes. Yes, they will. They always do unless they happen to die.

So why freaking bother with this crap? I know it’s about drama but it’s so colossally annoying. I’m not saying people need to be 100% because no one is, but to string the truth out for hundreds of pages for no reason other than to manufacture drama is damn taxing. How about layering the lies? Or telling half-truths? Or slight omissions? Or if a character must go down the lying route, delve deeper into the motivation beyond the character believing they are protecting others because we know they aren’t.

Perhaps the character should start with the truth from the beginning. That, in and of itself, can generate all kinds of drama. When we think about our own lives, there are times when we feel comfortable telling the truth to someone that later on it turns out to have been a big mistake. Yet for some reason when it comes to literature and TV and movies, characters constantly lie, lie, lie. The burden is enormous and causes bigger problems then there really needs to be.

Nerds: While I believe the geek shall inherit the Earth, I would like many of the stereotypes and tropes associated with nerds to be retired. As a nerd I will admit that while it’s nice seeing my fellow geek brothers and sisters represented, it’s also annoying because so often the various degrees of nerdiness is ignored.

Some nerds are born, gifted with high intellect and naturally drawn to certain things. Some nerds are made, discovering the older they get they really are a Doctor Who and Star Trek fan because that stuff resonates finally. Not all nerds wear glasses. Fun fact, near-sightedness is actually the dominate gene, not perfect vision. Not all nerds are dateless and sexless. Not all nerds are adverse to showers and personal grooming. Not all nerds are stick thin or morbidly obese and have a diet which consists solely of Mountain Dew and Cheetos. Not all nerds are fashion adverse or horribly awkward.

Like every other stereotype out there, yes, there are people who fit the mold but by and large, nerds are a diverse group of people. Some are really into comics but not computers. Some are really into computers but not into science fiction. You get the idea. So let’s try to retire the nerd trope especially as more and more things associated with a fringe group have become mainstream and socially acceptable.

Angsty hero/heroine: While I’m all for a well-rounded and well-developed character, I’m getting a little bit tired of a hero/heroine who either starts off full of angst or through the course of the story becomes more emo. Oddly enough this is usually related to all the lying the hero/heroine does. Hmmm, wonder if there might be a correlation?

I think this became popular because it’s a quick and easy way to add depth to a character. Kill off someone close to them or have them be forced to kill someone, bam! Instant guilt and darkness. Oh, but some of us in the audience are getting tired of that. Again, it comes down to how to add drama to the story and make the hero’s life as trying as possible. But for all the darkness very little thought is put into bringing light into the hero’s/heroine’s life unless through a love interest. This in and of itself is something that should be relied upon less.

Heroes don’t have to be Mr. or Miss Happy All the Time types of people because no one is. The appeal of a hero is how they pick themselves up when things get bad. The hero’s journey can inspire us, but if you make the hero too full of angst we just don’t care.

Women Who Kick Ass: Let me preface this by stating I have fond memories of 1990s/early 2000s TV as having a lot of great female characters. It was awesome and great as a girl growing up seeing women who had something to offer beyond looks. However, partially as a result of this I noticed a trope developed. It was Women Who Kick Ass. The main problem I have with this is it gives the impression that the only way to be a strong woman is to literally be a strong woman. Apparently a woman who isn’t physically strong isn’t a strong woman even if her strengths come in other areas.

I get why this became popular especially over the last couple of decades. For too long history, society, culture, literature, TV, and movies have treated women as something so weak physically that this must mean women are the lesser.

So how do we fix this problem especially with the massive social and cultural upheaval the 1960s and 1970s bring us? Go in the complete and opposite direction. Yet even with women embracing the idea they aren’t weaklings, there is still a struggle on how to present a strong woman as feminine.  Xena may have been a warrior princess but let’s face it, her outfit wasn’t the most practical. We can kick ass as long as we look good doing it.

Hmmm, but what if you are un-athletic? Or not cute? Or both? What if you are the quiet female? Not necessarily passive and full of no self-esteem but just someone who’s more introverted? In an attempt to pump up the self-esteem and image of women that we can do anything that somehow got translated into in order to be able to do anything, you must be physical and kick ass. I get not wanting little girls to grow up believing they need a man to solve everything for them. Or to give little boys the impression females are dumb but Women Who Kick Ass ignores other things that make a female strong.

 

Like everything else, these tropes are what I see most commonly that I’m getting tired of. These things are cyclical and a few months or years from now it’ll be another set of tropes that will be popular. Granted the reason why these exist and continue to be used is because as a reader or viewer we still respond to them. I’m not trying to say that using any or all of these tropes are a bad thing for a writer because there are plenty of writers who do a great job with tropes to make them feel fresh and still relevant. Again that’s when taking a trope and adding some kind of twist to it.

Yet part of me can’t help but think buying into these tropes is just cheap and lazy writing. It’s far easier to go with people’s expectations rather than digging deeper and deeper into characters and story. It feels like to me it’s a way to shut the door on the endless possibilities that exist within the infinite universe of a writer’s mind. For my own works, there are times when I do make a conscious decision to at least try something different. Sometimes I think it works but admittedly there are times it doesn’t work. At least it’s worth giving a try.

Musings

Weekly Musing: Make Every Word Count

Word counts. A metric many of us writers become obsessed with. How many words did I write today, this week, this month, this year? Do I count new words for my revision when I’ve just deleted an entire page, scene, or chapter? Do I delete the cut words from my overall word count? Do word counts even matter? How the hell can one tell a story in just 500 words or less? How the hell can someone tell a story in more than 2,000 words? Those two little words sound simple but can cause a lot of anxiety for some.

To me there are two definitions of word count. The first one is the one which refers to actual word production or output. This year is the first year I’ve personally started to track my output. It’s kind of eye-opening in many respects. My own personal rule is to only count new words written in relation to a novel, short story, or blog post. I don’t count other stuff like FB posts or writing in my personal journal. At first I thought this made a lot of sense but whenever I revise, how the heck do I count that? I still haven’t quite figured it out and doubt I will by the end of the year.

Another thing that opened my eyes is by keeping track of my approximate production, I see just how much or little I write. I admit I don’t write every day since I like to let things sit for a bit, have an inability to juggle a bunch of stories at one time, or if I’m doing research. And occasionally real life wants in like knocking me down with a migraine or something else.

It’s interesting seeing how much I’ve gotten done by month. For example, for the first quarter of this year I wrote approximately 105,518 words. That’s a lot but doesn’t tell the whole story. January and February, when I was focused on working on my novel’s rough draft, my production was huge while March’s numbers were much smaller. But while March’s numbers weren’t big, that doesn’t necessarily translate into being less productive because I drafted, finalized, and submitted one story as well drafting two other stories for upcoming deadlines. That’s a lot more ‘storytelling’ if you will, then what took place in January and February.

The other definition of word count is one defined by guidelines from various publishers. Flash fiction is usually any story with a count of up to 1,000 words. To be considered a short story, the word count can be up to 20,000 words although I personally have yet to see any calls for stories anywhere near that length. 10,000 words max is the highest limit I’ve seen and that’s only be a scant few times. The average seems to be from 1,000 to 5,000 words. Within the novella camp, the word count definition gets even more confusing. Again, depending on whoever’s guidelines an author is looking at, a novella can be up to 40,000 words. Or more. Who knows. And when talking about novels, that’s wide open. Some shorter works like Eli Wiesel’s Night I’ve seen classified as a novel even though it’s about 100 pages. Yet there are plenty of books well north of 600, 770, 800, or 900 pages.

Numbers and writers don’t mix usually so throwing out that simple term word count is scary. It’s amazing to think regardless if a writer bangs out a ton of words in a year or relatively little that both paths can lead to success. Or those people I know who can easily tell a story is as few words as possible while I feel utterly incapable of telling a story in no less than 3,000 words can lead to success.

With word counts in all their forms, whether personal or professional, we once again see that there is no one correct, or easy, path to success. Just make every word count.