On Judging A Book By Its Cover

The old saw is that you shouldn’t just a book by its cover. That’s a good rule of thumb when you’re dealing with people or if your presented with new ideas, but when it comes to actual books it’s kind of silly. Truth is a cover can often be someone’s first impression of a book and it can say several things about its contents, from the level of professionalism involved to the genre to particular aspects of the story or characters a reader might find intriguing.

Take, for example, the cover of The Water Road:

TWR Cover

That cover, I hope, tells you several things. Most notably, that this is the first book in a trilogy, so it’s part of an epic story. The background image and script mark it as fantasy, but the crossed muskets mark it as a different kind of fantasy – this isn’t your traditional sword and sorcery story. Without reading word one, you’ve got some idea of what to expect going in.

I don’t always pay that much attention to covers as a reader, since I do most of my reading via Audible listening and I rarely have the full-sized book in my hand. Not that covers never make a difference – one of my recent reads, Johannes Cabal: Necromancer, I got purely because the cover on the shelf at the bookstore drew me in (it was darkly funny – highly recommended). So, anyway, the blurb usually controls, as it did for Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz. Here’s the first half:

Autonomous features a rakish female pharmaceutical pirate named Jack who traverses the world in her own submarine. A notorious anti-patent scientist who has styled herself as a Robin Hood heroine fighting to bring cheap drugs to the poor, Jack’s latest drug is leaving a trail of lethal overdoses across what used to be North America—a drug that compels people to become addicted to their work.

Pretty cool, huh? I loved the idea of a rogue drug maker slipping through the high seas like a 21st-century Captain Nemo. But here’s the cover for Autonomous:

Autonomous_Design by Will Staehle

Does that really match the blurb? It doesn’t and, turns out, for good reason. Autonomous (which is pretty good – I recommend it) really isn’t about Jack so much as it is the beings in her orbit, particularly the robots and other enhanced beings. The book is really about their place in the world and what it means to really be free (or not). Hence the title. Hence the mechanical arm in chains. Hence some of my disappointment with the book itself.

Which is to say that covers can be tricky things. We, as authors, want people to judge our books by them – judge them as worthy of picking up, of clicking on, of reading. But they’re also a first impression, something you only get one chance to make. The right cover is a high wire act, one that most of us aren’t comfortable performing without a net.

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Weekly Read: How to Stop Time

Every time I finish reading a book or watching a movie I have a routine I call “doing my due diligence.” I hop on the Web and read up on what I’ve just finished, looking for critical reviews, viewer feedback, and any interesting interviews/analyses I can find. Rarely do I find a review headline that so completely nailed my feeling about book during this due diligence as I did after I finished How to Stop Time. As the Irish Times put it:

StopTimeHeadline

I mean, it can’t get much better for a writer than for a critic to say “the only thing wrong is there’s not more of it,” right? Always leave them wanting more, as the saying goes.

It’s not quite that clear cut when it comes to How to Stop Time, but it does get pretty close.

The central conceit of the book is a reverse of progeroid syndromes, actual conditions where people age rapidly, usually dying young. The main character here, Tom Hazard, has just the opposite problem – he only ages one year for every 14 that pass. He’s not immortal, but long lived and robustly healthy. Needless to say, it causes issues.

The book bounces back between “now,” where Tom is trying to lead a normal life as a history teacher (makes sense), and various points in his past. Thus we see (in the 16th century) Tom do the one thing that all nearly immortal souls make – falling in love. The scars of that love run deep, reaching into the “now” world as Tom tries to overcome them. Along the way he rubs elbows with some famous folks – works for Shakespeare, sails with Captain Cook, hangs out with Fitzgerald and Zelda – but mostly drifts kind of aimlessly.

Trying to give some structure to things, and help those like Tom stay off the radar (because there are others), is the Albatross Society, so named because the birds have long life spans. Hendrich, the leader of this group of “Albers” who’s been around so long he actually looks old, dictates the parameters of Tom’s life as a mean of protection, he says, although it’s never really clear if there’s much of a threat.

Which is part of the problem with How to Stop Time. While the flashbacks are all interesting and dive deep into Tom’s character, the actual story doesn’t really get going very far until well past the book’s midpoint, at which is careens into motion so fast that it’s hard to keep up. In truth, this seems like about half a book, rather than a full novel. Is the threat Hendrich repeatedly intones real? Could Tom really find love with a regular woman in the modern world? What about his daughter with that long-dead love, a woman who has the same condition as he? So many areas go unexplored as the book barrels to its finish.

So it’s not so much that How to Stop Time is so great from beginning to end that you just want more of the good stuff; it’s more that it feels incomplete. Which is a shame, because the run up is really good and the basic idea is executed really well. Still highly recommended, even if you might wind up saying “is that all?” when you’re done.

HowtoStopTime

And Then There Were Two

Since I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year because I’m still knee deep in working on the first book of the Unari Empire Trilogy, I figured now was a good time to let y’all in on some exciting developments with the book.

First and foremost – it has a title! A working title, at least. Right now the first book in the trilogy is going to be Gods of the Empire. That should be followed by Widows of the Empire and, finally, Heroes of the Empire. Subject to change, of course, but it’s a far sight better than Untitled.

Second, the trilogy has been reshaped somewhat (again). My original plan was to have three main characters whose stories developed through the three books. After doing a lot more writing, I’ve decided to cut one of those characters out, for the most part. He has a role to play in the end of things, so he’ll make an appearance, but I ultimately decided not to make him a main character. It will help keep the word count in the right area and, I hope, sharpen the story a bit by narrowing the focus. He’ll get a stand-alone short story to flesh out his background, eventually.

That means that . . . third – the complete first draft is finally done! Recall that I had what was going to be book one of seven done before restructuring it into a trilogy. Now I’ve written a draft of the second half of the first book, so after a couple of editing passes to bring it up to speed with the first half I will have a good, solid base to start a more holistic edit of Gods of the Empire.

If all goes according to plan, I should have a finished product in the first half of 2019.

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Off I go!

Author Interview – Natalie Sypolt

After a little hiatus we’re back with West Virginia short story writer Natalie Sypolt.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I’m Natalie Sypolt. I live in Preston County, West Virginia and I teach at Pierpont Community & Technical College. I also run the high school portion of the West Virginia Writers Workshop, held each summer at WVU. I write primarily short fiction set in Appalachia.

What is it about West Virginia (or Appalachia more generally) that makes it such good fodder for stories? Is it because it’s home or something else?

I think for me I write about West Virginia and Appalachia because it is what I know, what is in my heart. Any place can be fodder for story. I also think it is important to write about this region–to show the stories and lives of people who may not get the spotlight much (or who get it only for certain, usually unfortunate and sometimes completely wrong, reasons). No one ever asks why a story is set in NYC or LA. Those just seem like natural choices. WV is a natural choice for me, and when I talk to young writers, I try to get them to see that they can tell an important story and set it here, where they know. They don’t  have to set their work in a metropolitan city for it to be taken seriously.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

My first book, The Sound of Holding Your Breath, is out in November from WVU Press. It is a collection of short stories. All are set in West Virginia. I am currently completing my second book, which is a collection of linked stories, also mostly set in West Virginia.

Cover

Which story in The Sound of Holding Your Breath is your favorite or means the most to you? Why?

I don’t know that I can really name a “favorite”. I do really feel close to “My Brothers and Me”. I wrote that story all in one setting after a summer of local news stories involving domestic violence and partner murder/suicides. It felt important and necessary. I also really love the last story in the collection, “Stalking the White Deer”, because I wrote it at Hindman and then had the story published in Appalachian Heritage, which had always been a goal publication.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

I primarily write fiction. I’ve always been a great reader, since I was a child, and I think I first started writing as a way to enter into the stories I loved.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

Honestly, process is not something I think a lot about in my own work. Most writers I know do, and I respect that a lot, but for me I don’t have a set “process” that I follow every time I write a story. Usually, I will have thought about the story—or at least the start of a story—for a long time before I ever put words to paper. If I’m writing a short story, I most love to write it all in one setting so that the voice and energy stay the same. I often will start by writing by hand—a couple paragraphs or a page or so—and then switch over to a computer once I’ve gotten started.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

 I don’t know that I can name a favorite character.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

 I love research, so I guess nothing would ever seem too weird to me. Most of my stories, though, are pretty realistic and set here, in the world that I best know. One of my more recent stories, though (not in this current book) does take place partially in Ireland. I knew I wanted to have the main character visit the Cliffs of Mohr and that she’d had a situation that involved a loved one attempting suicide. When I’d been at the Cliffs a year before, I had wondered if people came there to kill themselves—a morbid thought, yes, but it is ridiculously easy to reach the edge. So, when writing this story, I did a little research on this and discovered that the Cliffs of Mohr is close to the top of this list of suicide locations in Ireland. I then fell down a depressing rabbit hole of research that did end up in the story.

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What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

Oh, boy. Well, a lot of things. I think the most important thing I learned after making myself miserable in grad school is that my voice is just as important as anyone else’s. Just because someone talks louder doesn’t mean that they’re right, especially when it comes to my writing. I learned to trust myself more, and to worry about what other people thought a little less.

Do you have your work read by beta readers or others before it becomes final? How do you handle that feedback while trying to “worry what other people thought a little less”?

It depends. Sometimes I will send a story to my friend Melissa, who I went to graduate school with. We’re very good readers for one another and I trust her explicitly. (She, by the way, is embarking on a year long road trip in which she will visit all 50 states in a camper van–follow her at EdgyontheRoad.com.). More often, though, I don’t show anyone. That’s a bad answer, and I should do more workshopping, but I just don’t. I’ve learned to trust myself, and that has to be enough for now. I would not mind having a writer’s group someday, though.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

Well, I would maybe not have to work quite as much, which would be nice. Having some structured time is good, though, and nothing really structures time as much as having a job.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

This is a great question for me because I love talking about books. Within the last couple of years I have discovered the novels of William Gay. I had read some of his short fiction in school but had no idea how great his novels are. They are dark and creepy, but also have this beating heart of humanity. I also read We Have Always Lived at the Castle by Shirley Jackson (who is best known for “The Lottery”) and was totally blown away. So, so good. As for contemporary writers that I am in love with right now: I really enjoy the work of Michele Young-Stone who writes these magical realism stories that I could never write but love to read and think about. I also liked Silas House’s latest novel, Southernmost.

What do you think your next project will be?

As I said, I’m finishing the first draft of my linked collection. I have also started writing a novel set in West Virginia and loosely based on a family story that my grandfather told me.

Why did you decide to make your second book a collection of linked stories? How has the need to link them together made writing them different from the stories in your current book? 

 In my head, everything is already connected. That’s how my brain works. Even though my current book isn’t called a linked collection, I imagine all those people inhabiting the same world, living as neighbors or family members. I think that the idea for the linked stories started several years ago when Melissa and I decided we were going to write linked collection together–she’d write one story, and then I’d write one to respond to it. That idea didn’t really work out, but I just kept going with the same characters. I also found that it was easier to write when I sat down to work or when I went to a writer’s retreat if I already had a project underway. I could just enter back into the project with a new story.

Learn more about Natalie at her website.

Have Fun Storming the NaNo!

It’s November, which means it’s also National Novel Writing Month!

nanowrimo

I’ve participated in NaNo several times over the years, but I’m sitting this one out. Not because I’m not writing, but because I’m still knee deep in working on the first book of the Unari Trilogy. I’m just not in a good spot to start something new right now.

But, to all of you participating in NaNoWriMo, whether you’re at it for the first time or you’re a seasoned veteran – good luck! Fifty thousand words are only a month away!

have-fun-storming-the-castle