The Most Important Writing Lesson of All

I finally managed to get a galley proof of my book. But the expected euphoria at holding an actual work of art produced by my own self did not appear.

I didn’t like the look of it, the feel of it or the size of it. At 110,000 words I’d expected a doorstop sized whacking big thing, but no. It looked like a thicker version of a half-sized comic. The champagne stayed in the fridge and the party hats remained in their boxes.

And that was just the start of it.

Holding the Book

Holding the Book

But as I’ve learned in life it’s the setbacks that teach you the most. And a very big lesson was just round the corner as I sat down to read my own book in print.

The experience was completely different to the 800+ times I’d read it in A4 size electronic format. It was even different from the version I downloaded from Kindle. It was a revelation.

Every author has probably read their first chapter hundreds of times. Trying to get it right. The one chapter that sets the scene, hooks the reader and foreshadows the tale to come. As I read my first chapter for the first time in print the book took on a different feel. I could almost see the words threading through the page ahead of me, like a narrow pathway leading me into the story. The plot unfolded more slowly, the characters seemed sharper and the hints on what was to come were more subtle.

It was a different book. It was an actual honest to goodness novel, not just electronic words dancing on a screen that one day would become a book. It was real.

I reached for a party hat…..

Then I noticed that some of the typeset wasn’t quite right. The chapter titles weren’t centre-justified. There were grammatical errors even after the two professional edits and the hundreds of searches through the text for missed capitals, commas in the wrong place and quotation marks not closed. The hundreds of hours spent finishing the book for a Kindle upload looked hopelessly inadequate. The book just wasn’t publishable, I’d jumped the gun like so many of my fellow writers. I’d wanted to finish the book so badly I ignored the advice to ‘edit the book to death’ before it went public.

So, on a plane last night I sat with a pen and a highlighter going over the text once more. I edited it backwards so that I wouldn’t get wound into the story and end up being more interested in the hero’s arc that the punctuation.

It’s going to take some time to fix. No-one said it would be easy.

But, to date, it’s the most important writing lesson I’ve learned.

And it’s a lesson that we all probably have to learn at some point.

Books and Their Covers

I wondered when books started to have ‘art’ printed on the front? I guess in the old days a book was leather bound, because they were valuable and leather was the only viable option. I suppose someone had to invent the idea of paper covers for books and it’s possible that such a thing would have been seen as trivial in the old days. I’ve seen leather covers with embossing and gold leaf on the front but not many, to my mind the Victorians et al preferred a plain and sensible cover. Before purchasing a book they must have read sizeable portions of the book to find out what it was about.

Modern book buying was shorthanded by the clever use of covers to segregate the target audience, and to give the buyers a quick way to sift through a myriad of books. Embossed gold signifying a ‘woman’s book’, menacing objects signifying murder and mayhem, weird spacecraft telling of science-fiction therein. The blurbs tease with ‘Will she ever find true love?’, ‘Can the police unravel the clues in time?’ and on to intrigue the potential reader to dig deep for a purchase.

The cover has become such an important element of a book that it can never be ignored or seen as something to just wrap a book in. E-Books more so – the ‘cover’ is the first hook to sell the book. Segregation of the buyer is less important (because the books are already segregated into ‘mystery’, vampire’ and so on. What matters more than ever is an eye-catching combinations of colours and images. Then the browser can focus onto what the cover is telling

Virtual beings, hot babes, ghosts in the machine and a ‘hook’. Awesome! Or not.
Images purchased from istockphoto

them,accompanied by text that informs and teases.

I sat and thought about this for a while. My own book needs a cover and ‘blurb’. My musings took me through ‘why’ all the way down to ‘how’. A journey of self-discovery and learning was about to commence. As well as writing I paint, so there was an in-built drive to design my own cover. After all, no-one knows what the content of the book is better than me. What followed was almost as hard as writing the book.

I thought of hundreds of possibilities, looked at hundreds of book covers and browsed the book stores. This activity threw up ten good ideas, I set to producing the cover, and….nothing. Not one piece of book-art worthy of publication. And, more importantly, they didn’t tell the reader what the book was about. They were more confusing that illuminating.

Then I had a brainwave on movies. Nowadays movies share the same media platforms as books. In many ways the art of the movie poster with their lurid designs and information on who stars in the movie, who directed it and so on are redundant. But the need to reel in a purchaser remains the same. Movies need art-covers to sell. Enter IMDB, my favourite site after WordPress.

To complete the art-cover story another element appeared in the shape of Piet Mondrian. Always a favourite artist. A Dutchman who worked out how a combination of colours, their size and juxtaposition would be pleasing to the eye. No-one knows why his art is popular, or why it’s so heavily used in the advertising world (look at most make-up boxes and Piet is looking right at you) but he nailed it.

And that looped me back to my book cover. I decided it would have a Mondrian layout complete with primary colours – because a more complex description of the content can be given. From that starting point the rest was a doddle – right up until i bounced off the ‘software barrier’. None of the software I had could handle the layout plus all the ‘lets make a book-cover’ software advertised had a little note hidden at the bottom that showed it was a Photoshop plug-in. Now I’m a dab hand at assembling Ikea furniture (which a friend of mine says is a particular form of insanity) but with Photoshop I can’t get past the first instruction line. The learning curve to use Photoshop is so steep that someone (like myself) who has only a few decades left to live shouldn’t attempt it (IMHO).

A Ghost in the Machine
Image purchased from istockphoto

But the wiles of man know no bounds and with a combination of grit, perseverance, guile and accidental good luck I fooled Microsoft Word into producing the art-work. It’s not exactly what I want but it’s at least good enough to send to a professional as an example of where I’m going with the cover. I think the colours I’ve used are too intense – maybe they need to be more muted?

Once the layout was sorted I searched istockphoto to buy the images I needed. I enjoyed the experience. The photos available are amazing (at amazingly low prices too) and all of the sites were a joy to use. A lesson for all companies that seek to sell services through the web. For my money I can use the images up to 500,000 times on paper or unlimited times electronically. A real bargain I thought.

Another angle of course, a challenge not yet encountered, is the upload criteria: the format, size, numbers of pixels, file size and, I’m sure, a dozen other barriers to getting it on Kindle will arise.

That done I turned to the ‘blurb. I’d produced some as the book progressed but the story had changed somewhat (see blog ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer). Writing the blurb turned out to be as difficult as producing the cover art. I think writers have a particular problem with the blurb, because it’s not writing – it’s marketing. And should be handled by someone who knows what their doing. Being of sound mind – not, I busied away at drafts and scenarios. What emerged is OK, but like the book-art it’s maybe a framework, an idea, an insight into what I want that a professional can shape into something better.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.