Freebies #3: Boxing Day

December 28, 2011 at 4:42 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

As a gift to all those who got ereaders for christmas, I made my story, Hold On, available as a free ebook on

This is the first story I ever had published, and it won the Federation of BC Writers Literary Writes competition. It’s not all that representative of my style these days, but it’s got one or two tricks that I still find interesting. Enjoy!


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Freebies #2

December 17, 2011 at 11:38 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

Two more free ebooks available now on smashwords: “Of Flowers and Sunlight” and “Linares del Arroyo”. “Linares del Arroyo” received an Honourable Mention in The Fiddlehead magazine’s short story competetion, and was previously published in the Spring 2009 issue.

Go here to read them:

Merry Christmas!

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Creating a book cover: The Dostoevsky/Kardashian Method

December 11, 2011 at 5:03 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

It occurred to me recently that I’ve neglected to mention one very important aspect of publishing Scar: the cover. Part of what got me thinking about this was going through the self-published books on Smashwords, and other sites, and seeing some truly awful covers.

Forget the old cliche about not judging a book by its cover; that’s what the cover is there for. How do you make your book stand out when it’s surrounded by thousands of others, whether on a physical bookstore shelf or online? Your cover is your first chance to get people interested in your book, and if it doesn’t do that, it doesn’t matter if you wrote the best novel in human history; no one will ever know, because no one will ever get past that boring/hideous/offensive cover.

For the self-publisher, the cover of your book needs to do three things:

1)      Grab the (potential) reader’s attention and make them want to know more.

2)      Convey in an instant what kind of book this is, so that you know you’re engaging with the right kind of reader, ie. people who actually read the type of book you’ve written.

3)      Make your book look as professional and high quality as any other book out there.

The first two points are just as important for a major publisher as they are for anyone else, and big publishers will spend thousands on getting the covers of their books right. You don’t need to do that, but you do need to be aware of the tricks and techniques the big guys use, so you can steal borrow them.

Step 1: Grab the reader’s attention

Which of these looks more interesting?

I’ll admit that “Database Issues…” isn’t helped by its subject matter, but the cover for “The Sisters Brothers” draws your eye towards it. It has bright, bold, primary colours; red, in particular, always attracts attention. It has interesting fonts. It has both human figures and what looks like a face, two things we are evolutionarily conditioned to notice and look for, as anyone who doubts Jesus’ appearance in a piece of toast will tell you. One of these books makes you interested to know more, and the other doesn’t, unless you’re really curious about geographic information systems.

Step 2: Attracting the right kind of reader

A good cover should convey the essence of the book in the time it takes to glance at it. Sounds difficult, but fortunately, we humans are visual creatures, and we’ve been conveying information visually for a very long time now. Not only that, but publishers have developed a visual language of book covers that enables customers to make snap-second decisions on books they know nothing about.

Look at these two:

Both attract attention, but whose attention? One is an intense, harrowing exploration of morality and suffering; the other is by Dostoevsky (Ba-boom! Thank you, I’ll be here all week.) ‘The Idiot’ promises sophistication, abstraction, intensity; ‘Kardashian Konfidential’ offers glamour, celebrity and gossip. Both of these books might catch my eye in a bookstore, but I’d only consider buying one of them. The publishers are marketing to two very different demographics, and when they designed the cover on the Kardashian’s book, they weren’t thinking of me.

Look at books similar to yours; does your cover look like theirs? If you’ve written a story about a single girl in the city trying to choose between her sexy but caddish boss and her endearingly nerdy childhood sweetheart, a hot pink cover with a pair of shoes on the front is perfectly appropriate, but it might not work as well for a dystopian steampunk fantasy.

Step 3: Looking the part

If you take the time to learn the language of book covers, you’re already halfway to not looking like an amateur, because you’ll quickly learn how to target the right audience with your cover. But there are other pitfalls to avoid. One that self-published writers often make is having covers that are far too ‘busy’.  Just because your book has scenes set in Paris, Australia and outer space doesn’t mean you have to have the Eiffel Tower, Ayers rock and the moon on the cover. Don’t try and tell the story in an image; that’s not what the cover is for. You want to give a sense of the overall tone of the book, but that’s all. Is it a fun summer read? A rumination on the transience of all things? A political pot-boiler? A murder mystery? These are things a good cover makes clear.

Another common error by self-published writers is having too much writing on the cover. You know those taglines that movies have, like ‘Alien’s memorable “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream?” Leave those to the movies. Big publishing houses don’t put taglines on the front of their books, and neither should you. If you really want a tagline, you can put it on the back cover, where the blurb goes; not on the front.

The front cover of a novel really only needs two pieces of text; the author’s name and the title. Sometimes a pull-quote from a favourable review might find its way there too, but be sparing. Also, if the book is in a series, it’s fine to mention that on the front. Murder mysteries seem particularly prone to this, often listing the main recurring character by name: “A Sluethy McSolve Mystery”. (Sluethy McSolve is the hard-boiled private detective/concert pianist I just invented, in case you were wondering.) This falls under the category of conveying to the reader what kind of book this is.

Simplicity is key; less here is definitely more. Consider the fact that the world’s biggest bookseller has no physical stores, only a website which will shrink your cover down to the resolution of a three-year-old’s drawing and display it as a 1 inch jpeg. The simpler a cover is, the better it will look in those conditions. (Up to a point, of course. The simplest cover is no cover at all, but that won’t sell many books.)

Scar: The story behind the cover

Throughout the process of publishing Scar, I’ve had quite a few people comment favourably on the cover. Not just friends of mine, either; even the folks at Createspace complimented me on it.

I wanted to keep it simple and stark. The tree comes from the mythological themes of the book; the tree has always been an archetypal image in mythologies throughout the world. Also, Scar is a book about family and the past; I felt the tree with its spreading roots was a good representation of that. The red was my girlfriend’s idea; it makes the cover much more striking, and also hints at the theme of blood, of family. The roots in the black soil also hint at the underworld, a major theme in the book being the psychological/mythological descent into the underworld of one’s psyche. That the upper branches of the tree suggest the human brain was a happy coincidence lost on me until my brother pointed it out.

I can’t draw worth a damn. But happily for me, and unhappily for them, artists are abundant, and cheap. There are as many people trying to break out into art as there are trying to write books, and in the meantime, many of them are happy to take on small jobs. I put an ad on craigslist looking for an artist, and got dozens of replies.  You can also explore to find someone whose style suits your book.

My cover was drawn by a Seattle artist named Michael Yakutis; he also drew comics of a few scenes from Scar for my website and advertising material. He’s talented, a real pleasure to work with and ridiculously reasonable; you can see more of his work at

There’s a lot about Scar that I’m proud of, and the cover is definitely one of those things. Every time I look at it, I feel a small swell of pride; that’s what a good cover can do.

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December 2, 2011 at 8:57 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

In the spirit of Christmas, I’ve decided to publish some of my short stories as free ebooks on The first two, ‘Life and Borges’ and ‘Sybil’ are available now. You can download them, in just about any ebook format, here:

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Schizophrenia in the media

December 1, 2011 at 7:06 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

Bit of a departure for a blog about self-publishing here, but I’ve been following the news coverage of Anders Breivik’s diagnosis by forensic psychologists as a paranoid schizophrenic. You remember Breivik; he’s the self-described ‘anti-Muslim militant’ who killed 77 people in and around Oslo in July.

Breivik has been quite clear in describing his motivations for the attack. He targeted the summer gathering of Norway’s Labour party in twisted retaliation for what he saw as their pro-multicultural, pro-immigration policies. Breivik, like many on the far right, felt not only that radical Islam was a very real threat to European societies, but that political entities on the Left were in some way allied with these radical Islamists.
Since his arrest, Breivik has been awaiting trial, with much of his time spent in solitary confinement. Now that he has been found insane, he may, depending on the court’s agreement with the findings, be facing compulsory psychiatric care instead of a prison sentence.

I’ve been reading a lot of comments on this verdict, and there’s two things that trouble me.

One is that this was a politically motivated attack. We don’t consider the mental health of the 9/11 hijackers, or of the Air India bombers. These were people acting in accordance with a very definite political agenda, using violence to achieve their aims. By lumping Breivik in with the likes of Charles Manson and Fred West, the ideology he subscribed to is passing by almost without comment. We know he was involved in one way or another with far-right groups, but when we categorise him as simply insane, all that seems to fall by the wayside. A terrorist act, a Norwegian 9/11, becomes instead a Scandinavian Columbine, a senseless tragedy with no political angle whatsoever. This is missing an important point: that anyone can be capable of unspeakable acts if they believe themselves to be doing the right thing. You can see it in schools, where children are taught that Hitler was an insane lunatic who somehow bewitched an entire nation into committing atrocities, as though he were the only murdering dictator in human history. Nothing is as dangerous as the man who believes beyond a shadow of a doubt that what he is doing is right. We forget this at our peril.

The second troubling aspect is this diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. I’m not in a position to argue with forensic psychologists over the mental state of a man I’ve never met. Breivik may very well be schizophrenic; I wouldn’t know. What I do know is how this informs the societal image of what a schizophrenic is.

Due to having written a novel with a schizophrenic protagonist, I have a Google alert set up to notify me of news stories on schizophrenia. It’s a depressing spectacle, for the most part. Especially today. The Google News page for schizophrenia today leads with Breivik, of course. He’s followed by Anthony Rapoport, a Chicago man who beat his aunt to death with a baseball bat. Scroll just a little down the same page, and we have Nicholas Bendle, the California man who killed a complete stranger with a hatchet.

Scared yet? Apparently, the world is full of murderous schizophrenics who could snap at any moment and kill you for no reason! Even if they think they have a reason, as Breivik did, it’s the madness, not the ideology, that we should blame.

So far, so depressing, but none of this is especially surprising. The mainstream image of schizophrenia has long been that of a rampaging, murderous psychopath – well, that or someone with ‘split personalities’, a completely unrelated condition. We’re thinking of Norman Bates, not John Nash.

The truth is a little different. About 5 per cent of violent crime is committed by people with various psychotic disorders, including but not limited to schizophrenia. When you consider that roughly 1 per cent of the population suffers from schizophrenia, it starts to seem a little less scary.

In 1999, a study by the Royal College of Psychiatrists concluded that people with mental illnesses are far less dangerous than people under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and that dying at the hands of a mentally ill stranger is less likely than winning the lottery. But the media is naturally biased towards the unusual, the shocking, the bizarre. No one wants to hear about the 50 million people who didn’t win the lottery this week; they want to hear about the one who did. No one wants to hear about the schizophrenics who control their symptoms with medication and function highly in society despite their illness; we want the knife, the hockey mask, the Hollywood horror.

The truth is simultaneously more mundane and more horrifying: a supposedly sane person is just as likely to commit horrific acts as a schizophrenic. And whether Breivik is schizophrenic or not, it is his ideology that prompted him to murder innocent strangers – an ideology he shares with hundreds of sane people.

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