Should You Judge a Book By Its Cover?

If the cat sits tear it…

For the last week or so I’ve been trying to work up a design for the book cover for my debut novel, Warm Pearls and Paper Cranes. Having got a number of suggestions back from designers, I spread them all out neatly on the floor so I could do a compare and contrast exercise. Jerry must have strong opinions as he scattered them and then shred one. Clearly, he doesn’t appreciate the work and thought that’s gone into them. Or maybe he was just aiming to get my attention. He succeeded.

I rescued the remaining designs and asked my daughter what she thought. She dismissed most of them. Okay, all of them. They were either too dull, too cluttered, or only showed the WW2 side. Because the story is intergenerational it covers not just contemporary romance, but travels back to 1939 and it is really difficult to bring that together in a picture. We tried with letters etc, which links the two generations, and how Hannah, the younger protagonist, discovers the secrets of her Great Aunt Maud, but again they didn’t stand out, particularly when looking at a thumbnail, which is how most people will come across the book.

Robyn, my editor said I needed to consider the market, the tones and fonts that work and subject matter, and pushed a link through for the top lesbian romance and women’s fiction, where it could also fit. I took the hint that what we had wasn’t hitting the mark. Well, it wasn’t really a hint, but hey, I can wear my big girl pants.

So back to the drawing board, I mean computer. I downloaded a free piece of software called gimp, which is like a free version of photoshop. Seriously, that’s the name they decided to go with? They could have just called it IMP, image manipulation programme, and we would have just nodded our heads. Especially as I have been struggling with how to use the masks. No, I don’t want to go down this side line.

Eventually after some suggestions from a close friend, I worked on an alternative that seemed to hit the market (it features a young woman), and hints at the conflict – she’s wearing pearls, which seems a more old-fashioned style and also has a paper crane tattoo. It also has a strong visual impact which I was aiming for.

“No,” my daughter said, “that’s not Maud, and I can’t imagine Hannah wearing pearls.”

“The cover is not supposed to portray the characters completely, just intrigue the reader enough to pick up the book, or scroll down to read the blurb and hopefully decide they’ll download it.” I replied. My editor agreed with my daughter, saying it was an Audrey Hepburn knock off, so it hit the reject pile too.

The challenge got me thinking though. Do the covers have to be a literal translation of the characters? I know a lot of them don’t, particularly traditionally published fiction. If someone is described as really tall, or quite boyish/butch looking I don’t really expect to see two femmes together on the cover, but that does seem to be the norm. Because I like data, I did a quick straw poll. Of the eleven covers in the top fifty paid lesbian romance on Amazon that show two women together, nine were of two femmes together and the other two covers you couldn’t tell.

Would it put me off completely though, and do I feel disappointed? No, not if I’ve enjoyed the book. One of my favourite authors is Olivia Waite and the cover characters don’t look like they’re described in the books at all; they are definitely pitched within the romance genre showing two characters who happen to be female and very femme. Does it matter? I guess if I didn’t like the books that would be another mark against it, but I will happily pre-order whatever she has in the feminine pursuits series, irrespective of the cover, because I love her writing style and her characters.

Does it bug you if the people on the cover are very different from how you imagine them, or as they are described?

Excuse me, I need to get back to yet more cover design ideas.

Coping with Reopening Anxiety… ( kind of)

Teignmouth, Devon, England

I’ve had a very fortunate lockdown and I’m very grateful, because I live surrounded by beautiful countryside, I enjoy the company of the people I live with, I’ve been able to go out for walks with friends and I’ve been working on my novel. So I’ve been busy, engaged and even enjoyed zoom quizzes, poetry readings and catch ups with friends and family. Don’t judge me!

Of course I’ve had worries and concerns, one of the biggest being my 91 year old Dad but he’s been keeping himself busy and my brother and I have managed to visit him and deliver “red cross parcels” and sort out his ipad…again.

I know a lot of people have struggled and my heart goes out to them. So when one of my closest friends invited me to go away to a house in Devon overlooking the water, to help celebrate her birthday with a small group of friends, I should have been delighted. And I was. Then I panicked. Not so much about Covid,as we had all been double jabbed and had all agreed to take a test in the morning before travelling, but about seeing people, mixing with people and having to interact with them.

It was great, but exhausting. It was wonderful to be with friends and to see the sea, play games and go sightseeing. The issue that freaked me out was having to deal with other people’s energy, baggage and agendas. It’s as though over the past eighteen months I’ve become even more of an introvert than normal and need even longer to recharge my batteries and do my ‘reset’.

I thought it was just me. But when I spoke to others, when I was away and since then, and a lot of people seem to be having similar concerns. My daughter informed me there is a name for it, reopening anxiety. There is also a web page dedicated to it on the NHS website.

So they great news is… we are not alone! I guess we now need to negotiate how we greet people (do we give them a hug or a kiss?), decide whether to wear masks or not (personally, I will be in public places) and do a risk reward assessment of every social event. I’m happy going to an art gallery or museum (I can’t believe how much I’ve missed that), but will avoid a raucous pub watching the football (soccer). That doesn’t stop me watching it on TV with a couple of similar footie nuts though.

Getting “In The Mood”

Most of our visitors never see Jerry, our neurotic cat, they just catch a glimpse of a white flash as he retreats to his nearest hiding place. But whenever I am working he appears at my side, “helping” with the writing by batting at my fingers, sitting on the keyboard, or in this case, choosing a playlist to set the tone.

My current work in progress, Warm Pearls and Paper Cranes, is an intergenerational story, part of which is set during the second world war, so it’s been fun to select old songs to get me In The Mood, or in this case, choosing the D Day Darlings rendition of We’ll Meet Again. That track has been the theme tune to this story, partly because the older couple, Maud and Bea, keep getting separated; first by the war, then by convention and work and subsequently by Maud’s family.

When I wrote my short story called Pele, for the second Lesfic Eclectic volume, I listened to Iz’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which always makes me cry. I also listened to Pixar’s Lava on repeat to get into the Hawaiian vibe.

Talking to various writer friends some can’t listen to music at all while they write, others only while they edit or do admin tasks. I probably fit in to the latter category, and if I’m not working on a particular theme I tend to listen to opera because it’s full of passion and feeling. Now, I just need to make sure I translate those emotions into my writing :0) .

The Unintended Consequences of Research

Dad with his previous lockdown project, SS Corona


One of the wonderful things about writing is that you can unravel quirky facts, or read around a subject and call it research.

I’ve been researching World War Two for my current WIP and have asked questions of both my Dad (who’s 91) and my ex-father-in-law (who’s 92). Both have provided me with fascinating details of the time, most of which will never hit the final page. The irony is neither will ever end up reading my books. My dad does not like or approve of my lifestyle and when I first came out to him over twenty years ago cut me out of his life and his will. It’s been a long slog back to normalcy, with the help of advocacy of both my late stepmother and my brother, and now we have a good relationship, although there are number of taboo subjects that we avoid.

In my research on the land army, I decided to conflate an incident I read about and a memory from my Dad that he has related on a number of occasions. I asked him to write out everything he could remember about it, which he did and I asked some follow up questions, part of which will make it into the manuscript.

When we spoke about the incident, Dad said how much he had enjoyed thinking back over it and recalling the details (he has an excellent memory) that we decided to do an experiment.

We speak every night. Before the pandemic he was off doing things, but like everybody else in the lockdowns, his interests and activities have been severely curtailed. He found the first lockdown a lot easier to deal with, maybe because it was as we were about to hit spring, it was a novelty and because it was warmer, he could potter in his garage and created a model ship from scrap wood he had lying around. Inevitably, we called it the SS Corona.

This time though, he has found it a lot harder, both physically and mentally, as a number of his acquaintances have caught Covid 19, it was cold and wet and he has missed meeting up with people. He seemed to be slipping into despondency and started to repeat what he had said, not because he didn’t know it was a repetition, but because he wanted to keep me on the phone and have a connection. I put my hand up that I am not the world’s most patient person (as my daughter will testify), and even with poetry readings twice a week with him, there are only so many times I can hear what he’s eaten during the day and be polite and enthusiastic.

So, given how much he enjoyed thinking about and relating his war story I have started to ask him about facets of his life, from his childhood, during the war, in the RAF etc. He thinks about it during the day and writes notes, then relates the stories in the evenings. As he now has something to think about and something different to talk about, he has been more cheerful and I’ve listened with genuine interest. In short, our connection has been strengthened, and all because I asked him about his experiences in the name of research. Who knew asking simple questions could lead to a deeper bond and understanding? Irrespective, I’m grateful.

Are there places research has taken you that you didn’t expect?

Editing is Hard

The stream of consciousness writing, the word dump, is the easiest bit of the writing, for me anyway. I like to scribble when I’m half-awake in the early hours of the morning. Ideally, I’ll then drift back to sleep with the opportunity for a second go around when I wake again around seven.

But the editing is hard. Why? Because I have to chip away at a crudely shaped draft stuffed with telling and formal dialogue and turn it into something that is engaging and beautiful. Well, that’s the aim, but I haven’t hit there yet.

Of course I’m talking about self- editing, before it goes to professional editors, such as the wonderful women at Global Wordsmiths, who spare no punches but will turn a raw manuscript into a crafted piece of work. They also run some great courses and I’m hoping that next year we’ll be able to go back to Spain, rather than zoom.

So, what has helped?

  1. I’ve just bought the program Pro Writing Aid to help with the grammar, but it won’t tell me when I am going off on a tangent, or have major plot holes (and there have been a number!).
  2. To help with the readability I’ve put my manuscript in Word, under the review section there is “read aloud” which converts text to speech. It’s very helpful to listen to what is working and what is not. Despite the monotonous tone and some strange pronunciations (sake being read like the Japanese drink rather than rhyming with rake for example) it’s been great for picking up pacing errors. And I make lots of those.
  3. I’ve read lots of books about editing. Perhaps my favourites have been the Jodie Renner books and those of James Scott Bell. But if you have recommendations, I’d love to know them.
  4. I’m also a member of a critique group, a group of like-minded readers and writers who meet monthly (on zoom) and critique writing uploaded onto Google drive. We are lucky in our group that we have some professional writers who give of their time to challenge and query, and we also have fun.
  5. And finally, knowing I have a professional editor who will challenge hard, but also support and encourage.

And it’s all in the name of better writing.

So why have I been struggling? I was told I needed to go deeper and show more emotion. In other words, be more vulnerable.

As I private person I find this tricky, I’ll be honest. I don’t like “to wear my heart on my sleeve for daws to peck at,” as Iago would have it. The fact that I’ve spent a career’s worth of report writing, trying to obliterate anything emotional from my writing or working life, it’s difficult now to prise open the shell and uncover what’s in there. But I’m still seeking the pearl.

And even when I have gone deep and retrieved a feeling, it’s how to express it that isn’t already cliched or elicits the response in the reader that isn’t a yawn.

As pearls are formed as a protection of the oyster against an irritant, like grit, maybe I should just accept the irritant and learn to dive deep and see what I can uncover.

But still, I shall dive deep, prise open the oysters and seek that elusive pearl.

Anyone else struggle with this?

How Was Nanowrimo For You?

Nanowrimo Congratulations Banner

This was the first time of attempting National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) in November. I had written and rewritten the first scenes a couple of times, and after a bit of prodding and support from Global Wordsmiths plotted the book, scene by scene.

I’m so glad I did.

By having something concrete to complete each day, meant I just checked what needed to be done the night before, ready for the onslaught. I had the Global Wordsmiths intermediate (online) writing course half way through November, so had to work around that and they provided a writing lounge on zoom in the evenings to hold us all to account, and to support each other. With the result that I completed 88,000 words in 38 days. And finished the first draft of the novel, with the working title of Gammy’s story, but that will change!

So, the things that made the difference for me were:

  1. Support of others, being held to account and chat/ work in the evenings. Hopefully next year we can all meet up in person. Perhaps with a glass of wine and cookies?
  2. Planning as much as possible beforehand.
  3. Not being distracted by researching down too many rabbit holes. Did they really use the word ‘clit’ around 1941 in the UK, if they knew what it was of course?
  4. Not doing the scenes in order, but what I felt in the mood to write. Feeling angry? Write a scene with lots of conflict.
  5. Writing something everyday, even if it meant getting up at 5:30am.
  6. Using my best time to write for the more creative aspect. For me that’s first thing in the morning, so I’d do the stream of consciousness thing using notes on my phone. Then attempted to decipher the predictive text later in the day and write it in some semblance of order.

Anything else that helped you?

If you’ve done Nano this year, well done, and if you tried but didn’t reach the 50,000 words, you still got more words down than you started.

Pet Peeves of a Pedant

Okay, I confess. I hate it when something is factually incorrect in a story or song. It just throws me out of the alternative world and drags me kicking and questioning into the mundane, and reaching for Google (other search engines are available).

I’ve recently been working on a short story for the Lesfic Eclectic Second Volume.  Worth checking out when it’s released, as it is a wonderful mix of fresh writing of wlw.

I based my story on the Big Island in Hawaii. Well, why not? I’ve been there a few times in the past and it really is as beautiful as it looks. It’s a shame we can’t go there at the moment, as it would have been ideal to visit again, for research purposes only, of course. It might have been difficult to claim against taxes though!

Anyway, to get into the mood and vibe of the place when I was writing, I would listen to a collection of Hawaiian songs on Spotify or YouTube.

One of my favourites is Pixar’s short film, Lava. There is nothing like a male falsetto voice singing with a ukulele. I realise that isn’t everyone’s cup of iced tea, but it definitely conjures up the warm breezes and lapping ocean for me.

Unfortunately, near the beginning on the soundtrack is the cry of a seagull.

Every time I hear it, I get thrown out of the song because you don’t get gulls in Hawaii.  I’m sure a few may have hitchhiked on a passing ship, but they don’t breed there. Another reason to love Hawaii, I guess. 

The trouble with being a pedant is I have this urge to go and doublecheck the facts. Sometimes I get drawn the rabbit hole and don’t return to the original story, which is a disaster for the writer.

So as authors it is essential we have editors or beta readers to sense check what’s been written. My daughter is like a bull dog at sniffing out inaccuracies, so I think of her as my alpha reader. Although we have had a few “intense discussions” about certain issues, but that’s another story.

Even with editors and beta readers, some items slip through, and I’ve come across a few other irritations that have thrown me out of what I was reading.

One was referring to pinot noir as being a white wine. The book is by one of my favourite authors, but it completely threw me out of the story and I had to go and doublecheck.  In case you are interested, although pinot noir is typically a red wine and the pinot grigio (or pinot gris) is white, it seems as though a few vineyards have been trying to produce a white pinot noir. Yes, I know, Captain Pedant.

Another I came across, which really goes against the grain for me, was referring to “the bottom line of the balance sheet”. As an accountant (read ‘pedant with numbers’) that made me suck in my teeth. The ‘bottom line’ refers to the profit and loss account not the balance sheet, which should always balance.

Are there pet hates you have that throw you out of the story?

Hello, Reader World!

I think I got into reading as it was something in which I could beat my brother. He was severely dyslexic, and they didn’t get support in those days. He was three years older than me, brilliant at cricket and everything else, and I idolised him. But reading was my thing.

As a child, I lived in Zambia and school finished at 1:30 p.m. In the afternoons, we were free. The dust tickled our noses, and we were serenaded by cicadas. It was so hot we would intersperse splashes in a friend’s pool with bouts of reading to dry off. We read anything and everything we could get hold of, from the Times of Zambia to classic children’s books, and we swapped with each other. We even picked up a copy of The Thoughts of Chairman Mao.

Television schedules were indicative rather than actual, so I’d read and tell stories to my brother’s Action Man and Eeyore while we waited for the one children’s programme to appear. I started to write the stories down. If I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would always say, “a writer.”

At eleven I fell in love…with Shakespeare. On a trip back to London we went to a magical outdoor Shakespeare performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regent’s Park, and I was hooked. From then on I started to write poetry and study performance. 

Established back in the UK, I was lucky enough to attend the same girls grammar school as Carol Ann Duffy (although some years later!), and was taught by the same English department and by the wonderful Mr Walker who inspired and encouraged her so much.

I continued to write poetry but moved into economics and accountancy for a full career’s worth of numbers and report writing, which slowly stifled my creativity. In my very limited spare time, I tried to write a novel but struggled with the plot and having enough headspace and energy to explore and play.

I was determined to retire from full time employment as soon as I’d paid off my mortgage, and I saw an advertisement for Global Wordsmith’s course in Spain—to begin the day after my retirement date. It was fate.

The course was much more than I hoped, Robyn and Brey being the perfect balance of ultimate professionals and welcoming hosts. I soon realised how much I didn’t know, and that writing a novel is not like a glorified work report or indeed an extended poem. Within a day, the plot I’d been billowing around with for months formed into a parabolic arch locked with a keystone of midpoint crisis. 

I shall always be grateful for their wisdom and encouragement. So when I was approached to see if I would submit a short story for the upcoming anthology, LesFic Eclectic, I leapt at the chance, and I feel very honoured that it was accepted.

In the meantime, I’m working on my novel, Cider, which is a great excuse to go around and sample different ciders in the name of research. For details about my novels, please see my website tab, Scribbling. So I hope you enjoy my short story, and I look forward to years of creativity and connection with you all. I’ve got a lot to catch up on…