Friday, April 24, 2020

Interview with Cover Artist Deirdre Wait

Deirdre Wait has been a graphic designer for more than 25 years, and a book cover designer for more than 18. She got her start as a newspaper advertising designer with Community Newspaper Company (CNC) in Massachusetts, eventually becoming a senior designer responsible for some of CNC’s top clients as well as promotional and marketing materials for the company. To expand her design and layout skills, she also worked in the editorial department as a paginator. That job led to a position with Wheeler Publishing—then, a small independent Large Print publisher—as a book paginator. After Wheeler was purchased by Thorndike Publishing in Maine, Thorndike hired Deirdre as a freelance book cover designer, and her main focus has been designing for and promoting books ever since. She and her husband Chris—also a graphic designer—under the business name High Pines Creative have designed covers for Five Star Publishing, Thorndike Press/Wheeler Publishing, and Encircle Publications, as well as ENC Graphic Services, and a number of independent authors.

Question: Who or what inspired you to become a cover artist?  Why did you select this particular type of work?

As the saying goes, that’s a long story, but to shorten it, I sort of stumbled into it. I graduated from Stonehill College with a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing, but also one course shy of a second degree in English Literature—I didn’t find a lot that I liked in the classes offered for “Electives” so I filled those credits with English literature classes because I have always loved to read, and never had any problem writing papers. The year I graduated was considered at the time to offer a very tough job market, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life at that point, I just knew I wanted to do something creative.

After a couple of random jobs, I got my start as a graphic designer in the newspaper business, designing advertising and marketing material, and eventually working my way up to senior designer. It was there that I met Eddie Vincent. We worked together at the paper for a few years, and then he left the newspaper to take a job with Wheeler Publishing when they were still a tiny outfit in Rockland, MA. He called me at the newspaper one day and asked if I’d be interested in taking a job as a book paginator, and at that point I was ready for a change. So I got the job, really loved it… and six months later Wheeler Publishing was bought by Gale/Thorndike Publishing in Maine. But just when I thought I was losing the first job I ever enjoyed, Thorndike hired Eddie as their production manager to handle the covers for all of their Large Print books as well as their Five Star Publishing line, and Eddie hired my husband Chris and I to design their covers. That was in March of 2002. Since then, I have designed somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 book covers, and over the years I have also done work for a number of independent authors, and a few other publishers—most recently, Encircle Publications, Eddie Vincent’s publishing company.

Question:  What kind of books do you prefer working on? Do you have a preference? Why?

I actually don’t have a preference. What I appreciate the most about what I do is the variety. I am the kind of person who can get bored easily if I have to do anything too repetitive, so I enjoy working on every genre. But if I had to choose, I lean towards what I most like to read, and though I also read every genre, my favorite is historical fiction. I enjoy working with setting, designing around a landscape that lures the reader in. I want them to look at the cover and say, “I want to go there.”

Question:  What part does the author of a book play in choosing the artwork?

I love working with authors to come up with cover concepts. However, some authors know exactly what they want, and others don’t even want to be involved in that part. Not all authors are “visual” people and those authors tend to give me the facts and let me “do my thing.” But I do enjoy working with authors who can visualize what they’d like to see on their covers and can give me the kind of “key words,” if you will, to come up with a way to turn their idea into a design.

Question:   Are authors easy or difficult to work with? Do they prove helpful for the most part?

Yes, they definitely prove helpful most of the time. No one knows their stories better, so sometimes it just takes me asking them the right questions to get the information I need to come up with a good concept. The only difficulty comes when I feel an author’s idea won’t necessarily help sell the book, because that’s what we’re doing with the cover—the book cover is the book’s advertisement. Today you’re not just competing with hundreds of thousands of other books, but these days most covers are viewed as thumbnails on a device, so your cover needs to be able to capture someone’s attention when it’s about a quarter of an inch wide. When an author wants an entire scene from the book on the front, I talk them out of it. Like with many things, simple is better.

Question:   What are you working on now?

I work with my husband Chris, also a graphic designer, under the business name High Pines Creative. We still design Large Print covers for Thorndike, and we work with a handful of independent authors on a regular basis. The bulk of our time these days is spent working for Encircle Publications and ENC Graphic Services, the companies of our friend Eddie Vincent. ENC Graphic Services is Eddie’s book design and production company, offering book cover design, interior design and layout for print and ebook, and help for self-publishing authors. We’re basically a virtual production department. Encircle Publications is Eddie and his wife Cynthia’s publishing company. They publish fiction and poetry, and I design covers for them as well as marketing material, and I manage most of their Facebook posts.

Question:   What advice would you offer to those who are currently considering becoming artists in this specialized field?

READ! I think it’s very important to be a reader if you’re going to design book covers, especially anything historical. I will admit early on I made a number of mistakes on historical novels because I didn’t know enough about the particular subject at the time to get it right. In turn, I expanded the scope of my reading so that I could learn more about certain time periods or other new subjects. Those were the early days. Now, I do quite a bit of research for any book that has anything to do with actual events before I even begin to design a cover. The more I read on the subject, the easier it is to design the cover.

As far as skill acquisition, I learned everything I ever needed to know about design problem solving during my newspaper days. It’s like boot camp for graphic designers. They will put you through the wringer, and throw every conceivable crazy idea at you. It won’t always be fun, but if you can stick with it for a reasonable amount of time, you’ll learn almost everything you need to know, and what you don’t know, you’ll learn how to trouble-shoot for yourself.

Deirdre has done a number of my covers for Five Star as well as now for Encircle. My fifth Kim Reynolds mystery BLOOD FAMILY, to be published by Encircle on May 15th, has a Deirdre Wait cover design. 

Deirdre is available for questions and comments.

Friday, April 17, 2020

How to Create Fiction That Readers Can’t Put Down

 Readers need both emotional and intellectual connection to fiction or they won’t continue reading. If this connection isn’t created, readers will simply say: So what? Then they’ll toss what they’re reading aside and look for something else. Since we writers put their blood, sweat and emotional existence into giving birth to our babies, it’s natural to want our work read. So how do writers create fiction that readers will care about? It’s not a secret. The answer lies with the characters.
Writers must first know their characters.
It is not enough to have a general idea of a character in your head when you start writing. You have to live and breathe the character, know him/her the way you know yourself. In essence, realistic characters are extensions or facets of yourself. My suggestion: Create a detailed written character study of each main character before you begin to write your story or novel.
Here are a few items to consider:
Shakespeare asks: What’s in a name? Clearly, a whole lot. A sweet young thing might have a soft-sounding name while a villain might have a hard-sounding one. What about ethnic names? Are they appropriate or inappropriate for your work?
Another thing you need to keep in mind is not to give characters names that might confuse readers. Names that are too similar in nature--for instance, Jane and Jana--should belong in different stories.
The name of your character will likely cause an assumption of gender, unless you are trying to keep it ambiguous. When I introduced African-American detective “Bert St. Croix” early in the novel THE DROWNING POOL,  the second book in my Kim Reynolds series, it comes as something as a surprise that she is a woman. She is tall, strong and fierce. A more masculine name fits her character. Readers don’t learn her back story right away, only the contrast that she has great sympathy and compassion for those who are in need of help but is tough with criminals. Nicknames are also something to consider. Does your character have a nickname like “Bert" short for “Roberta”? What might that suggest about the character?
Age at the time of the story is significant. Is your story about an adult, a teenager, a child?  Point of view and voice differ with each. Also consider how the time period the character lives in effects personality and beliefs. This is especially important in historical fiction.  In my historical romance SINFUL SEDUCTION, the novel is told in third person narrator from two distinct viewpoints—male and female. They are very different people who are in conflict both morally and politically.
 Also, when the main character is telling the story from a first person viewpoint there may be twists and turns in the plot. The unreliable first person narrator is very common to mystery fiction. Sometimes the reader knows just what the narrator knows while other times the reader deduces more. Dramatic irony can build tension and suspense.
Back Story/Personal History
Although you know your character’s back story or personal history, the reader should learn it slowly, piece-meal, bit by bit. This makes your character interesting and adds an intriguing aura of mystery which causes readers to turn the pages to find out more details about the character.  Avoid info dumping.
Making Your Character Sympathetic
Characters need to be relatable as well as real. This means they need to have good qualities that readers like but also character flaws just like an ordinary person. They also need to have goals and ambitions that they’re striving toward. I prefer to make my main characters sympathetic but complex. Jennifer Stoddard in THE INHERITANCE is a widow raising a small child and in financial distress. Her inheritance complicates her life further by putting her in danger.
It’s important to know how your characters look. Not only should you have a picture in your mind but you need to describe in words how the characters appear: short, tall, handsome, beautiful, ugly, fat, thin, eye color, hair color.
Mannerisms are important as well. Does your heroine bite her nails, twist locks of her long hair? Does your hero flex his muscles? Does your villain speak in a soft, menacing voice?
Start first with the family members, especially if they are an important part of the story. Who are the parents, siblings and extended family of your character? It’s not enough to just come up with names for them when developing your main subject. What are they like? Provide descriptions, personalities, etc. Are there any problems your character has with them? Kim Reynolds, the academic librarian sleuth first introduced in THE INFERNO COLLECTION, has a complex family dynamic that includes dark secrets.
What about friends? If they play a part in the story, we need to know your main character’s interactions with and feelings about them. In the Kim Reynolds mystery series, Kim comes to love police detective Mike Gardner. Their relationship is complicated in THE TRUTH SLEUTH by the return of Mike’s wife, Evelyn, who becomes THE BAD WIFE in the 4th novel in this series. Kim and Bert St. Croix also become close friends, and in THE BAD WIFE, they work together and quite literally save Mike’s life.
 Get to know your character’s strengths and weaknesses, attitudes, fears, obsessions, special talents and hobbies. How does your character think, speak, act? What do other characters say about him/her?
Weave body language in with dialogue. This often creates subtle emotional signals. What is said may be in contrast to what the character actually thinks and feels. Val Williams, the central character in my YA novel WITCH WISH, has a sharp sense of humor, but she is also jealous of her older sister and hurt by her mother’s antipathy.
When you write a scene where there is interaction between characters, try to visualize it as you would see it in a film. There’s nothing wrong with having the image in your mind of real people. It’s also okay to eavesdrop on conversations and be an objective observer which will provide you with material for your writing.
In DEATH LEGACY, Michelle Hallam is a mysterious English woman who has been trained in intelligence work. She is wary and guarded while Daniel Reiner appears to be open and more balanced in his approach to life. They are very different people who come together as lovers and detectives to solve a murder espionage mystery as their lives are placed in jeopardy putting them increasingly in danger. In DEATH PROMISE, the two return to solve yet another murder mystery; their complex relationship remains a key factor in the novel. The bantering dialogue between them shows their differences while being entertaining and advancing the plot.
 Okay, I’ll reiterate a few points:
 1. Be selective in choosing the names that convey what you want readers to visualize about your character.
2. Appearance is important. What does your character look like? Description can convey much about character. But don’t overdo it. As the old saying goes: show don’t tell.
3. What is special about your character’s speech? Are there unique phrases used? Dickens was a master of this. Also, dialogue should seem natural, they way real people talk.
4. Get into the mind set of your character. How does your character think?  James Joyce is a good writer to read for internal monologue technique.
5. How does your character act, react and interact with others?
6. What do other characters say about him/her?
7. Does the entire presentation have verisimilitude? Do your characters seem real and believable?
8. What values and goals are unique to your character?

Your comments, observations and input are welcome here!

Friday, April 3, 2020

Writing: Fiction Mistakes and How to Fix Them

I initially wrote a blog for this week entitled “Life and Writing in the Time of Coronavirus.” My husband suggested it. However, when I gave him my article to read, he felt it was too negative. Since we are living in the epicenter of the virus across the GWB from Manhattan, this may be true. I don’t want to depress my fellow writers. So instead my new blog is about fixing fiction mistakes.

Those of us who write fiction are always looking for ways to improve the quality of our work. I ran across an interesting piece I’ll share with you. According to an article written by James Scott Bell that appeared in a WRITER’S DIGEST newsletter, there are five main fiction writing mistakes that should be avoided. They are as follows:

1.    Presenting perfectly happy, nice characters in the beginning scenes. It’s Bell’s contention that the reader should be engaged from the first in the plot via trouble, threat, change or challenge to the key character(s). In other words, a strong narrative hook is needed to grip the reader.

2.    “The best novels, the ones that stay with you all the way to the end—and beyond—have the threat of death hanging over every scene.” This goes for romance as well as mystery and suspense. This does not mean necessarily physical death. It can be of a vocational or psychological nature.

3.    Avoid what Bell refers to as Marshmallow dialogue”. By this he means dialogue that is too gushy or sweet.  Good dialogue is compressed and crisp. Each character has a different and distinctive way of speaking. Also, all dialogue needs to have tension and complexity.

4.    Avoid the dull and predictable. Place something unexpected in each scene keeping the reader turning those pages wanting to know what will happen next.

5.    Dig deep into your characters. Create detailed backstories for them.

My own suggestion is to know more about the characters than you will intend to use in the book itself. I like to create a “character bible” which means writing down all the details about key characters, physical and mental.

I found Bell’s advice particularly useful for mystery and thriller fiction as well as romantic suspense. What is your opinion?