Guest Post: Author David Eccles – Shout This Book Cover Design Secret: You Don’t Need Photoshop!

I’m honored to have friend David Eccles, author of Darke Times and Other Stories, guest posting on the blog today. Getting into the indie author scene has given me a chance to network with some amazing people, and David is certainly one of them. From Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, David has an eclectic reading and writing mind. I’m thoroughly enjoying his new book and am happy with the topic he is discussing today, as it is an important one for all self-published authors. Enjoy!

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Before I begin my article in earnest, I’d like to say a huge thank you to Allen for inviting me to guest on his blog, and for providing us indie authors with much needed and much valued information and guidance.

I know that Allen has plans to feature his cover artist, Jennifer Jordon in future articles, because a beautiful cover can and almost certainly does affect a reader’s decision to purchase an author’s book. One would be wise to read Jen’s articles which will give us all an insight into how a true professional goes about the task of creating a pictorial masterpiece from our literary efforts.

In most cases, it would indeed be wise to shell out money and have a cover artist produce your cover for you, but what if funds are tight, you’re a stubborn so-and-so like me (I’m also broke, by the way) and you feel that you have the necessary skills to produce a decent cover yourself? There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a go at designing your own!

Ah, but Photoshop is expensive, I hear you say. No problem! You don’t need it!

It’s true that while Adobe Photoshop is probably the most well-known and the most widely used piece of software when it comes to image manipulation, there is no point in parting with hundreds of dollars of your hard-earned money if you can achieve equally good professional-looking results using non-proprietary software that is open source, cross-platform, and free!

I’m a huge lover and frequent user of the Gnu/Linux platform, and I dual-boot my computers with both Microsoft Windows and Ubuntu Linux so that I can make the most of what software is available.

For image manipulation, my software of choice is the GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program), because it’s cross-platform and freely distributable, it’s packed with features and can do nearly all that Adobe Photoshop can do. Screenshots here. Using a plug-in called PSPI increases its functionality and enables the GIMP to use lots of Photoshop plug-ins too!

It is way beyond the scope of this blog to go into any sort of detail as to what one can achieve with GIMP, but there are multitudes of forums and tutorials on how to use it, there is a comprehensive separate installable user manual, and there is a very active community who are always working to improve and develop the program further. The learning curve is quite steep, but after only one afternoon of playing around with it I managed to produce some surprisingly good results, including the cover of my own book! It’s not perfect by any means, but it was good enough to pass the manual review at Smashwords and be accepted into their Premium Catalog!

I blogged about GIMP on my own website in an article called Digital Painting on a Budget, also mentioning free 3D rendering software Blender, and followed it up with a sequel, Digital Painting on a Budget, Part 2, where I introduce another free program designed for creating vector graphics, Inkscape, and a low-cost alternative to Wacom graphics tablets from a company called Monoprice.

This short article is meant merely as a primer to give the reader a little information about freely available alternative software that in the long run will save any author who wishes to go it alone and design his/her own book cover a lot of money. Please keep your eyes open for a detailed in-depth look at cover design in future articles by Jennifer Jordon on Allen’s site.

Click the cover image or the text link to be taken to the Amazon website where you will be able to purchase my book, Darke Times and Other Stories, a collection of fourteen pieces of flash fiction and short stories in genres ranging from general fiction to science fiction, bizarro fantasy, horror, horror erotica and full-blown (if you excuse the pun) erotica.

Darke Times and Other Stories is also available on Smashwords, Kobobooks and at all of the usual places that Smashwords distributes books. I’ve been fortunate enough that since my book’s launch date eleven days ago on the fourteenth of July, every review has been a five-star review, including glowing reviews from horror author John F.D. Taff and YA author M.C. O’Neill, and I’ve been guest blogger on John’s website, with more guest appearances to come elsewhere on the web in the very near future. It’s a great time to be an indie author! Thank you for your support. You can be sure that I’ll give you mine!

  Eccles DarkeTimes

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Making Dialogue Feel Real

Dialogue

I read a book recently, The Settlers, by Jason Gurley, that had fantastic dialogue. I wrote about it in my review. It was powerful and, more importantly, made me feel like it was REAL dialogue. Have you ever read a book in which the dialogue fell flat? Maybe like the words spoken between characters just didn’t seem right? Heck, maybe you’ve written some pretty bad dialogue yourself; I know I have.

When I’m reading a book, I love the dialogue. That’s what makes me feel involved in the process. With conversation, it opens up the characters to one another. As readers, we are gods. We’re omnipotent observers because we get to read the back stories. We know the characters thoughts. The other characters don’t know these things, so when the dialogue comes along, the characters are letting out the secrets that we already know. You know how hard it is to keep a secret!

I’ve said that the hardest thing for me has been character development. I think I have a decent handle on that now, but the second hardest thing for me is dialogue. In my opinion, dialogue is a very important part of character development, if for no other reason than it is what makes them seem real. I mean, Ian Fleming could have filled our heads with great backdrops, stories, and thoughts of James Bond, but it really is the suave way that Bond talks to others (particularly the women) that make us love him. Unless your story is going to be set up based around the life of a mime, then you have to practice your dialogue skills. It certainly took a good bit of practice for me.

Assuming that you already know and understand the rules of punctuation surrounding dialogue (no small feat if you are new to it or are not an avid reader), you have to have a certain flow. I almost don’t know how to explain it. Coming from an academic, research based writing background, my dialogue flow was rough. Contractions were so non-existent in my head that I didn’t know where the apostrophe button was. Unless you are writing a Commander Data or Spoke fan fic, you really need to know where it is. People usually don’t talk in proper English. We are all about some contractions.

Making the dialogue real is important, but you know it can go overboard. Very rarely can an author go full on slang and get away with it. Mark Twain could manage it, but I certainly can’t. Could you imagine reading a book base on characters from Boston or How about southern Louisiana in which the author tried to get every word phonetically correct? You can throw most accents and slang out the window, especially if you are new at writing fiction (like me).

Most of the time, dialogue can’t simply be the spoken words (I know that it pretty much the definition though). What you put around the spoken words is just as important. Conversations between real people usually are accompanied by some kind of hand or head movement. Real conversations are also filled with thought in the heads of the participants. That has to be shown through the dialogue. Here is a brief snipet of dialogue that I just wrote for two of the characters in my new book, but completely stripped down and flow inept:

“I still have not opened the Bible you gave me,” said Benjamin. Pastor Raymond had given it to him a few months ago.

“I did not ask if you had,” said Raymond.

“I know, but I did not want you to get your hopes up,” said Benjamin.

“You will open it when and if you are ready,” said Raymond. “Rushing faith is an easy way to turn people away from God.”

Now, to me, that is about as ugly as it gets. Let’s look at what I really wrote:

“I still haven’t opened the Bible you gave me,” said Benjamin. Pastor Raymond had given it to him three months prior, probably hoping that Benjamin would gain a better understanding of faith.

“I didn’t ask if you had,” replied Raymond.

“I know,” said Benjamin, “but I didn’t want you to get your hopes up.” Benjamin smiled a little, hoping he could keep the pastor’s patience in check. He knew he didn’t have to worry about it, though. Pastor Raymond was the most patient person he knew.

“You’ll open it up when and if you’re ready,” said Raymond. “Rushing faith is an easy way to turn people away from God.”

Mechanically, everything that could be contracted is. That’s just how we talk. We’re not writing a research paper, we’re writing fiction. Also new to the second part it the filler between the characters speaking to one another. It tells you that they are not simply robots, but people that are having their own individual thoughts and feelings. In real conversation, this is stuff we do. We think about what the other person it saying and we wonder what they are thinking. Often what we are thinking is not what we say, and that has to be shown to the reader in fiction dialogue. If you want your audience to connect with the characters, you have to make them real. OH! Yes, I was hoping I could circle this back around to character development and there it is (I’m feeling a bit like the Doctor today thanks to my new sonic screwdriver).

New fiction writers, like myself, often rely on too little dialogue because it scares them. Sure, descriptions of the scenes are nice, and who doesn’t love to take a trip into a character’s past via flashbacks? But dialogue is where it’s at. I like to think of all the words in the book as parts of speech, with the dialogue being the action verbs. It adds the excitement and ups the tempo. Everything else is important, just not as much.

What do you think about dialogue? If you disagree, please let me know. On this blog, I just write things down regardless of whether or not it is right. Do you have your own way of making dialogue work? Put some of your own dialogue in the comments!

I want characters that I can sleep with…

Well, I know what you’re expecting. Maybe you think I’ve switched to the erotica genre overnight. As tempting as it sounds to try, I have to admit that I’ve never read anything erotica. Unless you count my inner thoughts as reading. Honestly, if I tried to write it, I would be looking over my shoulder making sure nobody was looking.

Here’s the deal. I’ve been super stressed about character development for my book. It is with four different editors right now, so I’m holding my breath until it comes back. Until then, I’m just trying to figure out what kind of attributes people want in a character and how they want them introduced and developed. I read a blog yesterday of someone that said they had to connect with the main character in some special way within the first few pages or they put it down. Uh oh. I started wondering if my main character could do that. Well, I have two main characters and the other one does not come in until about page twenty. Guess I lost that reader before my book is even published.

So, I did something that I should have done a long time ago. I got all of my favorite books off the shelf and put them on my bed. I’m not talking about the ones that I kind of liked. I’m talking about the ones that stayed with me. The ones that had characters that I felt like I knew as well as the ‘real’ people around me. You know what kind of book I’m talking about. For me, the list was somewhat big and included Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek, James Bond, 1984, and ENDER’S GAME. Well, as you can see, I’m mostly a sci-fi guy with a little thriller thrown in, but what made these and a few others so special to me? I cleared off the books and went back to writing, but as I was about to go to sleep, the answer hit me. My head was on the pillow and I was in that “about to fall asleep, so lets go on a thought adventure” state. My adventure included a lightsaber and some sith.

I want characters that I can sleep with! Literally all of the books that I love and cherish made me put myself into their world as I was falling asleep. I have always thrown myself into books I’m reading or have read and added chapters to them with me as a new character. If it’s Star Trek, then I’m right beside Picard and Janeway battling the Borg as Commander Captain Watson. If it’s a Bond book, then I’m 008, fighting the villain right along side 007 (Watson, Allen Watson). All of my favorite characters were ones that I could see myself becoming friends or colleagues with. I lull myself to sleep with the fantasies of becoming one of the major characters beside them.

Now that I know how to recognize my favorite characters, I need to know how to accomplish that as a writer. I want to get readers so involved with the people in my book that the characters stay with them until they open the book again. I want my readers to end a chapter and try to create the next chapter in their mind. Readers have need to find their best friends and greatest enemies inside of books.

So now I’ll be inserting myself into my own book. Before I fall asleep, I’ll become a new character in my own book. I’ll have conversations with the other characters and ask them what they would do next and what they think of developments so far. I’ll find out what their lives are like and how they would like to grow up.

There is no better way to write a book than to get your characters to help you out.

Character Development Stinks! But I Solved the Problem

fictionvnon

Too much description…too little description. Your character seems stiff (no pun intended). Your character is boring. The protagonist lacks connective qualities. The antagonist does not seem very antagonistic. 

Any of that sound familiar?

Character development, for me, is the hardest part of writing. I am finished with the second draft of my first book and will soon be giving it to about eight people for their verdict. Honestly? I’m scared to death of what they will say about the characters.

My background is not fiction writing. Far from it. Everything I have written has been pure non-fiction. Political science papers, APSA formatting. Education papers, APA formatting. No first person, no feelings, no twists, turns, or loops. Just factual writing based on solid research. I was good at it. I was so good that one of my jobs as a graduate assistant was to edit professional papers and books. All non-fiction and research based.

Making the switch to fiction was hard. It took me a while to flip the switch. Contractions had been pounded out of me to the point that my finger still has a hard time finding the apostrophe button. Using “I” would have gotten me shot. Same goes with using “he” and “she.” This certainly makes for some good writing, as long as you are turning it in to be peer-reviewed. It does not work well for fiction.

Following non-fiction guidelines for writing makes for tough fiction reading. Our brains function differently when reading each type. If we are reading non-fiction, we expect the syntax and grammar that comes with it. It doesn’t feel awkward. If we grab a fiction novel off the shelf and the author follows those strict guidelines, then it will feel like we are reading something a robot wrote (maybe SIRI).

It has been extremely difficult for me to break my own rules and switch to fiction. I think I have it down now, but I hope I’m able to switch back when I need to. Anyway, back to character development. That, too, is a skill that non-fiction does not teach you. There are no characters to develop in research papers and books. I struggled with what to do about that until a few days ago.

In researching and publishing in a journal, you have to develop an argument (not necessarily a conflict, but argument as in stating a point). In many ways, developing an argument and developing a character are similar. Both have to have an introduction. Both have to have background information conveyed and explained subtly yet forcefully. Both have to build and create themselves throughout the work and conclude with dignity. Most importantly, both an argument and a character have to stand on the work put into them once the story is complete. They have to stand strong and leave the reader convinced of their authenticity.

Unfortunately, I made that connection after I finished the first draft of my book. Hopefully my subconscious mind made the connection for me as I was writing. Breaking into fiction was hard. I considered myself to be a good non-fiction researcher and writer, not a story teller. Now I want to tell some stories. I can only hope that I make my characters come alive in my readers’ minds.

Has anyone else had this problem. Maybe you are great at fiction and not so great at non? Let me know in the comments!

You have to read to write!

I love to read. I go through phases with my reading though. I’m weird.

When I was growing up my grandmother got me into books about cats solving mysteries. Obviously, it was fiction (although I’ve met some pretty amazing cats in my lifetime). Fiction has such a valuable place in the literature, especially with kids and young adults. Without reading, how can they spark their imaginations? Well, the answer to that now is video games. Don’t get me wrong, I love Call of Duty just as much as the next guy, but I balance out the mind-numbing experience with my books.

Reading doesn’t only spark imaginations, its makes kids smarter. We all know that. Kids that read perform better in school. Their writing and vocabulary improves and, I would argue, they are happier. I know I was, and I know that performed better in all subject areas simply because I read (screw math).

So, I read fiction all the way through high school, but in college, I stopped. Not reading, but reading fiction. I had little time for any reading besides my college texts, which oddly enough, I mostly enjoyed. My passion is international affairs, so I made sure my schedule was full of classes that most Americans would balk at. Towards the end of my graduate studies, I decided to pick up some biographies of American historical figures. I got hooked on non-fiction. There was a time that I even decided that I was through reading fiction. I knew fiction was a waste of time.

It took me years to pick up a fiction novel again, and I did it with the newest Star Wars series of books. Once again, I was hooked. I again fell in love with letting go. I could pick up a book and forget everything else that was going on. Thank goodness I did, because I needed it. I became a cranky person when someone jolted me out of my book worlds.

Now I’m finishing my first fiction book, so clearly my view of fiction has changed. I think fiction and non-fiction are both are vital to having a well rounded reading experience. They offer different things and I would strongly argue that both are necessary for someone to become a good author (I don’t claim to be one, by the way).

Perhaps the most important thing is to keep reading. It is so easy to get distracted and not pick up a book. How often do you think – I’m just too tired tonight, so I’ll make sure I read tomorrow? Then the next day, the same thing. Getting out of the habit is much easier than getting back into it (opposite of most habits).

So, do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?

Do you think one or both are important for writers?

Do you think authors can be successful without being avid readers themselves?

Why I Write

The title of this post pretty much explains what it will be about, but not the whole story. I know different people have different reasons for why they pound out stories, but I figured I would tell you mine.

Without getting into too much of my past, I’ll just say that its been bumpy. I have a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in teaching. Long story short, I’m not teaching.

I have always wanted to try to write a book, but I figured that I wouldn’t be successful even if I tried. How could I, a boy from South Carolina, put something down that people would want to read?

Then I decided, I don’t care if you want to read it or not. No offense, but the stories in my head are mine. If you like them, then I will be overjoyed. In other words, I’m not counting on monetary success. Success for me is finishing a story. If you don’t like the stories, then at least I was able to get them from my head and onto the screen.

The thing is, I become attached to the people I write about. I didn’t know that would happen, but it did. As I finish my first book, I feel like I’ve built actual people. In fact, changing the littlest thing about them makes me feel like I am destroying a part of them. To me, that is success. It sounds strange, I know. But if I have created something that matters that much to me emotionally, then I’ve done what I set out to do.

This is all a new experiment for me. I will have the first book, Journey of the Kings, out on Amazon within a month or so. It will be the first of a few in the series. If it works, great! If I sell a thousand copies, I will throw a party (on the whole hundred dollars it makes me). If it sells one or two, then I’ll thank my mom and dad for giving the book a shot. Then I’ll write the next part anyway.