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A cover story: developing the design for my book

Book front cover 4-8-18One of the most exciting aspects of being a self-published author is having control over the design, branding and marketing of your book. I’d been looking forward to the cover design for ages, but before I got started I spent some time browsing around Waterstones to get a feel for trends. I also read a lot of information about self-published book covers.

While there was disagreement over what made a good cover, one piece of advice was consistent: that the book should fit in with what is expected of its genre. This, I imagine, is why authors and publishers often fall out over covers, because the author is committed to their artistic vision of their story, while the publisher and bookseller want to position it visually in the marketplace so that the right readers are drawn to it.

My novel sits broadly within the contemporary women’s fiction genre, since it’s written in an accessible style with a central female character who is dealing with relationships and other relatable women’s issues. However, it’s also gritty in parts. My two middle-aged characters are facing unemployment, poverty and mental ill-health. It’s set in a charity shop in Manchester, so not the most obviously glamorous location. If my choice of fonts and images on the cover were to suggest a sexy romance or high heels and shopping, it would no doubt come as a massive disappointment to the reader who downloaded it to their Kindle to take on holiday.

I needed a design that would give a prospective buyer a reasonable indication of what kind of book it was, and that felt right for the tone and mood of the story. I also wanted it to be eye-catching and have artistic merit.

My initial idea was inspired by a friend’s comment on my title, The Beauty of Broken Things. She said it reminded her of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold or silver. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

It suited the core message of my book, which is that people who have suffered adversity or struggled with their mental health can also possess amazing strength and beauty of character, not just in spite of their difficulties or imperfections, but as a result of them.

As I was searching through stock photo libraries for Kintsugi images, I came across other art forms that incorporated the concept of brokenness, including the mosaics designed by Antoni Gaudi at Parc Guell in Barcelona, which use the Trencadis technique of creating stunning new patterns out of waste pieces of ceramics. At once I was sure their rich intense colours would make for a striking book cover, as well as being thematically representative.

Book cover 4-8-18.jpgMy husband came up with the idea of cutting out the spaces within the mosaic for the title text, and I immediately loved it. Once we’d sourced the perfect image he got started on the artwork. We also bought a license to use the font, because once I’d seen it I knew I wasn’t going to be happy with any other.

Although Tony isn’t a graphic designer by profession, he produces a variety of marketing materials for his own business and he is a natural artist, so I was confident he’d do a good job. His attention to detail was great, right down to using Photoshop to line the edges of the cut-out areas with the same cement that was used in the mosaic.  I am delighted with the results, and hope my readers will be too.

Of course there can be pitfalls when embarking on a creative project with a partner or friend. Most self-publishing experts advise against using a non-professional to do your cover. All I can say is that in my case, it was the right choice for me. I found it easier to communicate what I wanted and to be assertive about what wasn’t working than I would have done with a stranger. Another benefit was that Tony had read the whole book, while cover designers typically rely on a synopsis or extract.

One of the many advantages of self-publishing is that a cover can easily be changed if it’s not working, or can be tested against a new version to measure performance.  I’d be sorry to say goodbye to the mosaic though, as I love its colourful jumbled beauty. Hopefully I’ll visit Barcelona one day and see the real thing.

The Beauty of Broken Things will be published on 10th October 2018, which is World Mental Health Day.

Image: Sandra Veronica/Shutterstock.com

 

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My novel, The Beauty of Broken Things, to be published on World Mental Health Day

I am thrilled to announce that my novel The Beauty of Broken Things will be available on Amazon from 10 October 2018, which is also World Mental Health Day.

The novel is a contemporary love story and an exploration of how our mental health influences our lives, work and relationships. Its two protagonists are middle-aged, unemployed, and struggling with anxiety and depression. They meet as volunteers sorting through second hand goods in a charity shop in Manchester.

I first developed the idea for the book in October 2015, so it will have been a three-year process from start to finish. Although the story is fictional, it’s strongly informed by my own experience of mental health conditions.

The manuscript is close to finished now. It’s already been through several developmental edits and I’m awaiting further feedback on the revised version from a relative who is a published author. After that it will be ready for the final copy-editing and proofreading stages.

In the meantime I’m reading as much as I can about the self-publishing process. There really is so much help and advice out there. I’d like to mention one book in particular, Firefly Magic by Lauren Sapala, which radically differs from others in its genre. Lauren goes right to the heart of why so many creative people feel strong resistance to promoting their work, and she gently helps us to shift our perspective until the prospect is more exciting than daunting. I recommend it to anyone who hates the idea of “selling.”

I also went to the Self-Publishing Conference in Leicester last month, which was a fantastic experience. All the presentations on topics including cover design, marketing and print-on-demand were very informative and the whole atmosphere was so supportive and inspiring for independent authors.

At the conference I was lucky to meet Aki Schiltz, director of The Literary Consultancy. I approached them earlier in the year for a full report on my novel, which I found very useful and motivating. I felt that the editor I was assigned, Thalia Suzuma, really understood and appreciated the story and characters, and she gave me some great suggestions for improvement. The Literary Consultancy have also kindly provided me with further advice on self-publishing.

The next big thing once the manuscript is finished will be the cover design. All the marketing and advertising I plan to do relies on having strong visual branding in place, so this will be a crucial element to get right. I have some ideas already but will write more on this in another post.

Today marks the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week. One of the most powerful ways we can help to promote understanding of our own mental health and that of others is through sharing stories. I hope my novel will contribute to this.

Writing, resilience and the purpose of critique

Last week thousands of parents will have dropped their young child off at school for the first time. I can only imagine their anxiety and their fervent hope that their little one will be accepted and make friends, escaping the torments of isolation and bullying that perhaps the parents suffered themselves.

Meanwhile I’m preparing to launch my first book in a few weeks’ time. It’s doubtless trite of me as a non-parent to compare writing a story to bringing a new life into the world. Nevertheless it’s something I’ve nurtured, protected and loved deeply for the past few years, and soon other people are going to tell me what they think of it.

Throughout my writing life I’ve found it incredibly challenging to receive harsh or blunt criticism. Sometimes it’s made me feel physically sick to read it. For years it was so painful, I concluded I wasn’t thick-skinned enough to be an author. Because everyone knows you have to be able to deal with people hating your writing. I mean, look at the one- and two-star reviews below every single book on Amazon or Goodreads. This business isn’t for the faint-hearted, right?

However, I’ve come to believe that the term ‘thick skin’ is misleading. The imagery suggests that this impenetrable hide we’re supposed to grow (and no one ever explains how) will prevent us experiencing the sting of criticism in future. Yet from conversations I’ve had with multi-published authors, that doesn’t seem to be the case. For most of us, the bad reviews always hurt.

I much prefer the idea of resilience. It allows you to remain human, to still care about the story you’ve put so much of your true self into, to feel upset when people attack or misunderstand it, but also to appreciate that what you’re going through is an emotional state that will pass, and that a bad day or week doesn’t have to lead to permanent discouragement.

The resilience I’ve developed so far doesn’t stop me from freaking out and having periods of intense self-doubt. But I recognise now that these things come and go like the weather. I also have better coping skills in place: reaching out to trusted friends to restore my confidence, practising self-compassion, and allowing space for my emotions to settle before making significant editorial changes. I’ve also learned that in the earlier stages of a draft, I need to completely trust my first readers to give me constructive criticism.

The balance of compassion and honesty that makes up constructive criticism is difficult to achieve and requires sensitivity to nuances of tone and language. Even the addition of an exclamation mark can make a comment sound condescending when it would have been fine without. Some people question why they need to be so tactful when they could just say what they think. The writer has got to get used to negative opinions when they’re published. Aren’t you helping them by toughening them up in advance?

To answer that, I find it helpful to separate the concepts of review and critique. Reviews, to my mind, aren’t there for the author at all. They’re for readers to communicate with each other and express opinions freely: what they loved or hated about the story and characters, how they rate or recommend the product they paid for. Malicious trolls and personal revenge narratives aside, I don’t think most reviewers set out to hurt the author. They just don’t concern themselves with the author’s feelings in that context. In the same way when I review a perfume or an item of clothing, my focus isn’t on being kind to the person who designed it, and nor do I think it should be.

Our book isn’t a bullied child that needs us to step in and defend it, even if it sometimes feels that way. It’s a work of art that stands independently, and once we’ve published it, we have to surrender control of how others perceive it. But we do have a choice in whether we read our reviews or engage with critics on social media. If we’re conscious of our own fragility, then the one- and two-star reviews come with an inbuilt trigger warning and may be best avoided for the sake of our wellbeing.

While reviews are for readers, critique is for the benefit of the author. Its intention should always be to help them improve their writing, not to serve the ego of the critiquer in any way. That doesn’t mean telling the writer what you think they want to hear. Dishonest praise does us no favours, since it leads to false expectations and denies us the opportunity to grow. But if your critique crushes someone’s creative spirit to the point where they give up writing, then it was destructive and failed in its purpose.

Experienced authors with robust self-belief may be better equipped to handle a no-holds-barred evaluation of their work; some even welcome it. For a new or more sensitive writer, it’s almost impossible to develop the necessary resilience without first building a foundation of confidence and recognition of one’s strengths.

I was only able to begin that process thanks to the support and encouragement of a mentor, and finding one is something I’d recommend to anyone who struggles with criticism.