Thursday, 24 May 2012

Plotting After Powder Burn – Part 2



In Plotting Part 1 I talked about the search for a plot for my fifth novel, which would be the second in a series starring American wannabe-journo, Sam Blackett. I’d always had a particular story in mind for this second book, but now I’m starting to wonder... are there any rules for the second book in a thriller series?

My original plot would find Sam in Fiji, trying to warm up after the Himalayan Powder Burn adventure. She’s been cruising around the islands for a few months after the success of her Powder Burn story, published in Adventure, and her career is starting to roll.

Then she bumps into an old friend from the States, he’s skippering a boat on a search for the perfect wave. A rich investor has hired him to do up the boat, and skipper it on a voyage through the Pacific Islands. They are looking for a place to build a hotel, a hotel with five star service and access to a completely empty, and perfectly ride-able wave for well-heeled amateur surfers. Scenting a story, Sam agrees to join him as a deck-hand and off they go...

What she doesn’t know is that the boat was bought very cheaply from the Singapore authorities, after they had confiscated it from a local criminal. He was using it to run drugs and girls out to the frustrated crewmen stuck on merchant ships, and awaiting their turn in Singapore’s massive container terminal. And what no one knows is that there’s still a huge stash of drugs hidden aboard the boat. Inevitably (this is a thriller), the drugs come to light at the worst possible moment...

And that’s the set-up – originally I thought the drugs would be found after they were wrecked on an island. The story would then go the way of a descent into madness and survival, a la Lord of the Flies, or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But now I’m thinking there’s also potential for a more conventional suspense thriller – a chase story, as the drug dealer comes after his boat and his stash.

Problems... first up,  this is territory I’ve mined before. The Defector is all about a boat chase and a struggle for survival. And in Powder Burn I take a step away from boats, which will either:

a) Open my books up to a wider readership.

b) Kill my career stone dead.

Assuming it's the former (and if it's the latter I won't be too worried about book five anyway), perhaps I’d be better off looking for a more conventional plot idea, something urban, something to complete the transition away from seaborne adventure in exotic places. 

The model for this series is Lee Child’s Jack Reacher stories, in which (in case you’ve been locked in a cupboard these past few years) a hero wanders alone across America, having random adventures. Child shifts from out-and-out action/suspense, to a more investigative-style of plot - he even shifts from first to third person.

I see Sam in the same way – so perhaps the second story should establish that MO right at the outset. Urban, and more of an investigation than an action thriller. And with that thought, I’m off to find out what Lee Child did with Jack Reacher in books one and two... back shortly. Or longly, depending on how busy I get...

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Covers and Blurbs...


Anyone who’s ever chosen a book will be aware of the importance of the cover design and the sales text – otherwise known as blurb. In the indie-book-world where the author takes responsibility for the entire publishing process, the blurb is unlikely to raise the stress level. After all, it’s just words, innit? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s thought they could do a better job of the blurb on the back of their traditionally published books... Well, now I get to try... but the covers? That’s a whole other ball game.
The Original Cover

The cover of a book is its first and most important sales tool – it doesn’t matter whether it’s in a shop or on an Amazon webpage, a book has to have an eye-catching cover to draw people to ALL of the rest of the sales tools – blurb, reviews, chart position... I don’t want to state the blindingly obvious, but covers don’t have much to do with words, they are visual beasts, with graphics, pictures and logos – and many writers are not comfortable in this environment.

So what to do when it comes time to create a cover for your first indie-publication?

In time-honoured (and game-show) fashion I called a friend, figuring that at least I would benefit from ‘mate’s rates’ ... and I did. Unfortunately, although my mate was a great designer, he didn’t know much about books. Initially, I loved the two covers he designed, as they did at least reflect my notion of the books. I had a sense that they weren’t quite right, but as I was only paying mate’s rates I felt uncomfortable about asking for too many changes.
The New Cover

Those covers lasted about a year, and it was only a bad review (for the covers, I should add, not the book) that finally tipped me over into doing something about it... but what? I’d seen many recommendations for cover designers while reading other writer’s blogs, but I was conscious that the choice of designer was crucial. It was all very well agreeing a fixed fee for a cover design, but what if I didn’t like any of those offered?

The answer came from in the shape of 99designs.com, where it’s possible to get almost anything designed. The process is simple; write a brief, a description of what you want designed and then post it on the website (book covers now have their own section). Part of the process is choosing a ‘prize’ amount in dollars, this is effectively the fee that you will pay the winning designer for the right to use the design that you eventually choose.
The Fulcrum Files

After you’ve done that, nothing much will happen for a day, or maybe two. And then you’ll get your first design. This is a crucial moment – I think that a lot of the designers working on the contests on 99designs are young, and looking to learn how to deal with clients and work to a brief. The money is secondary; if you provide them with good feedback on their work, they will keep at it for you. So when you get that first design, love it or hate it, try and find something intelligent to say about it. A lot of other designers will be watching the contest and if they see good quality feedback they will be a lot more inclined to jump in and have a go. This is the contest that I held for the design of my most recent book, The Fulcrum Files.

There were 136 designs from 26 different designers – the quality of the work and the ideas was fabulous, and it was a nightmare trying to pick a winner. Even now, I’m not sure I got the right one!

There are a few more things you need to know – the contest runs in two stages, at the end of the first stage you pick a maximum of six ‘Finalists’ and work with them towards a finished design. It’s possible to create a Poll so you can invite friends and readers to participate in the process – this is the one that I ran on my final set of choices.

It may or may not help you pick a winner.
The Wrecking Crew

The contest runs for a week under the standard rules, and you have plenty of time once it’s ended to choose a winner. The support and documentation on the website is great, so you should have no trouble with any of this, or the handover process - paying the cash and getting the full rights to use the design. If you need further variations (for a print edition perhaps), the designers will probably do it for free, but the website also allows you to commission and pay for extra work for a pre-arranged fee.

I’ve now run two contests, and chosen the covers for all three of my indie-fiction books. Not only does it produce great covers at a very fair price, it can also be a lot of fun as you work with the designers to try and get exactly what you’re looking for... And just when you’ve done it, another designer will enter the fray with an idea out of left-field that that you’d never even thought about – and quite likely blow your socks off with the possibilities...!