Book Covers and Genre Expectations

My writing group touched upon the interesting topic of book covers and genre expectations this week. The general consensus was that fiction readers are pre-programmed to expect certain elements of design based on the genre of the book.

Imagine yourself in the bookstore. You immediately know what shelf contains romance because of all the half-naked men on the covers. You know which books are thrillers, which are sci-fi and which are literary, purely based on a glance at the cover. Even in an online bookstore, where your search is by keywords and you can’t really make a mistake and accidentally buy erotica when you were looking for detective mystery, readers are confronted with these clichéd images, all in the name of expectation.

So woe betide any author who dares to deviate from the norm.

I write urban fantasy. Here are the first book covers of the four most popular series in the genre (according to Goodreads):

You see the similarity?

I decided to go a different way when I designed the covers for my MYTHICAL MENAGERIE series. I don’t have either a kick-ass female or a brooding male on mine, but rather a true scene from the book that hints at something extraordinary happening in an ordinary place. In these stories, the locations are important, so the cover for the first book in the series, BEGINNER’S LUCK, shows a rainbow over London’s iconic Big Ben.

I’ve been told this is an awesome cover, but because it doesn’t conform to genre expectations, readers of urban fantasy just aren’t drawn to it. In fact, someone told me because it features a historical landmark so prominently, it looks more like it could be historical drama.

Oh dear.

We all judge a book by its cover, even though we’ve been told not to. I will freely admit that I’m a cover snob – I won’t even give a book with a bad cover a second glance, much less read the blurb or try out a sample.

So covers matter. They matter a lot. They are the first chance an author gets to draw a potential reader’s interest. The question is, though, should we stick to genre expectations or are we allowed to mix things up a bit? I don’t know for certain, but sales sure would seem to indicate that the tried and tested way is true…

What are your thoughts and expectations surrounding book covers? Do you prefer to stick to the norm? Do you think I should change my covers to conform to my genre’s expectations?

Discovering Instafreebie

I am totally in love with Instafreebie right now!

For those of you who don’t know, Instafreebie is a site where authors make free copies of their books (preview chapters, novellas, short stories, entire novels) available to readers. Did you hear that? Free copies! Okay, so for readers who live in countries with access to Kindle Unlimited, this isn’t a big deal, but for the rest of us – huge!

Book love | © Kate Ter Haar / Flickr

You don’t have to register with the site, but you obviously have to give them your email address so that they can mail you a copy of your chosen book in whichever format you prefer. Most authors require you to sign-up to their mailing list before they give you their book for free, which is fair enough. You can always unsubscribe if you find out that a specific author’s writing is not for you.

So the beauty of Instafreebie to me is two-fold:

  1. I’m getting loads of new books to read and discovering the work of some really awesome indie writers, all while seeing what’s being written in my genre and being entertained by it – for free!
  2. I’ve placed my prequel novelette, KEEPER OF EXOTIC ANIMALS, up on the site as part of various giveaways and it’s provided me with some exposure and quite a few new people have signed up to my mailing list.

The downside of the site is that some of the books up for grabs are not necessarily of the best quality (IMHO), so you do need to wade through some dross to get to the gold. But so far, it’s been totally worth it for me.

If you’re an indie author just starting out, like me, then I’d definitely recommend giving Instafreebie (affiliate link) a go if you’re trying to get your name out there and trying to build a mailing list from scratch. And as a reader, who’d say no to great indie books for free? Who knows, you might discover your next author obsession here. You can thank me later.

Do you use Instafreebie to either discover new authors or to promote your books? What do you think of the site and the books / authors you’ve discovered there?

Two Worlds

© Unknown

Bethany knuckled the small of her back, dropping the mop into the pail of murky water. She wiped her brow with the corner of her rough homespun tunic, frowning at the stretch of corridor that still lay ahead of her.

“Every day,” she mumbled as her calloused hand wrapped around the handle of the mop again. With a yelp she tossed it aside, capsizing the bucket and spilling water all across the stone floor. She sucked at the splinter embedded in her palm, glaring at the rivulets running away from her. Her eyes widened. The princess stood at the end of the hallway, holding her pale silk skirts up out of harm’s way.

Heat infused Bethany’s cheeks and she lowered her gaze as the princess tiptoed past her. She glimpsed soaked silken slippers as the scent of lavender wafted by.

Bethany clutched at her skirts. It was suddenly all she could do not to kick the upturned bucket across the corridor. The woman smelled like lavender! And here she was, up to her arms in muck and sweat and tears, and that woman’s slippers had water stains on them. They were probably ruined now! She was going to tiptoe in her ruined slippers right into the arms of a prince who would sweep her off her feet and give her a hundred pairs of new silken slippers, adorned with gold and jewels and heaven knows what else princesses wear on their feet. She would spend her days lounging on a divan, sewing and gossiping and keeping her pretty little hands soft and fit for nothing but playing the harp. Oh, how Bethany envied the princess her life of comfort!

She sighed wistfully. Then, ignoring the pain shooting down her aching back, she retrieved the mop and the now-empty bucket. Muttering about the injustice of it all, Bethany trudged down to the courtyard to refill her pail at the well.

***

Elinoire examined the portrait of her betrothed, a small frown creasing her forehead. He was so… old. Thirty years old, to be precise, twice a lifetime to her. And he was king of Trotus. A fine match, her mother insisted. But it meant she had to leave her country, her home, for a cold, rainy, miserable little island up north. To marry a man she had never met.

She placed the sketch on the seat next to her and pulled her knees up to her chest, heedless of the wrinkles pressing into her silken gown, wiggling her toes in her damp slippers. Her gaze wandered out the window. It was a lovely day outside and the sun shone brightly in the bustling courtyard below. Elinoire’s lips twitched into a smile as she watched two women laughing raucously. One spilled her pail of water and the other dropped her handkerchief down the well. They laughed so hard Elinoire saw tears rolling down their cheeks.

A deep sadness threatened to overwhelm Elinoire as she watched the women’s antics from her perch high above them. What she wouldn’t give for such a carefree afternoon, for a good friend to laugh and cry with, for the weight of her future to be lifted from her shoulders, if only for a little while. Oh, how she envied them their freedom!

She sighed wistfully. Then, she turned her gaze from the window and back towards the portrait. She would do her duty. She would marry this man and secure an ally for her kingdom. She would keep her people safe.

Resolved, Elinoire marched out of her room in search of her mother, her chin held high, leaving a trail of wet footprints behind her.

Book Marketing for Indie Authors

I’ve learned so much about book marketing the last couple of months that I could probably write a whole new novel about the topic (and if the market wasn’t so saturated already, I might even consider it). Many indie authors will tell you they hate marketing and they would much prefer for someone else to do it on their behalf, but strangely enough, I’m actually really enjoying it. And that’s very weird coming from someone as introverted as I am (INTJ FTW!).

Enjoying it and being successful at it are two different things though. So far I’ve not had the greatest return on investment (time and money-wise), but what little traction I’ve gained I’m happy with. I know this is a long-term game and I’m ready to enjoy the journey.

Here are some of the things I’ve done and a few things I’m yet to do:

  • I’ve revamped this website. If you’ve been here from the very beginning you’ll remember I had an awfully generic template that did nothing to showcase what my writing is about. I’m much happier with the site now and I can’t stop staring at that gorgeous main page image of Una the unicorn.
  • I’ve created a landing page where potential readers can subscribe to my mailing list and receive a free novelette in return.
  • I ran a month-long Facebook ad to send that link out into the world and it’s gained me 11 new subscribers. I was hoping for more, but hey, that’s 11 more than I had before.
  • I’ve added the link to the landing page at the front and back of the stories that are already for sale.
  • I’ve set up email automation to welcome new subscribers and hopefully get them to engage with me on a more personal level (currently only 3 mails deep, I probably still need to expand on this a bit, but we’ll see).
  • I’m currently testing out the 30-day free trial on Instafreebie to see if I can gain more subscribers there, although I’ve heard that the quality of subscribers you get aren’t always good, so I’m not too worried about signing up for now.
  • I want to register with Bookfunnel to help me streamline sending out the free story, beta reader and ARC copies.
  • I’ve segmented my mailing list into beta readers and ARC readers, but I still need to invite an ARC team. I’m not too worried about that at this stage, because my awesome betas function as ARCs too (lucky girl).
  • I’ve signed up for Reedsy’s “Ultimate Book Marketing Plan” course and need to work my way through that (Reedsy’s free courses have been invaluable and I highly recommend them to anyone starting out on the indie publishing journey). I’ve also read a few e-books on book marketing that have reiterated everything that I’d already learned from Reedsy courses.
  • I also want to learn a little more about Amazon algorithms and see if it would be worthwhile trying out an Amazon advertisement.
  • I somehow need to convince the few readers I have to leave reviews on either Amazon or Goodreads. Time to brainstorm.
  • I want to find book review bloggers who are willing to review indie-published short stories and novelettes. These guys and gals are scarce as chicken teeth.

So, there you have some idea of what I’ve been doing behind the scenes lately. It’s been an incredibly interesting process and I learn something new every day.

Finally, I know that the best marketing tool for a book is the next book, so I’ve been squeezing in writing time whenever I can (although I still haven’t managed to get up at 5AM yet!). Watch this space…

Where are you on your indie author journey? Do you have any advice for me on how to get my work in front of more people and gain more subscribers? As a reader, what do you think I should do to market my books better?

Penthesilea’s Demise

© Unknown

The clash of weapons reverberates through the air, humid and hot and heavy with the stench of sweat and blood and ash. A moan escapes the lips of the man before me and I pull my sword out of his stomach as his eyes glaze over, his gaze already drawn past the scorched walls of this great city and towards the Elysian fields, forsaking this mortal body with its gaping wound and its insides spilling out.

An arrow flies past my head. I duck instinctively and roll to avoid the stab of an enemy spear. I am back on my feet before the soldier recovers from his thrust. Surprise flickers across his face, perhaps only now noticing the curvature of my body underneath the boiled leather harness, or from the shock of my knife entering the exposed spot in his bronze breastplate and penetrating his armpit. I cannot tell. It doesn’t matter. Blood gurgles from his mouth.

I move on. Death follows in my wake.

Just as I can no longer stand the stench, my mouth foul with the taste of rising bile and my hands spattered red, the wind changes and fresh air tickles across my face. For a moment, the carnage surrounding me diminishes as if it were an evil dream, and memories of home flash across my mind’s eye.

Memories of the verdant steppes stretching out as far as the sun reaches, of riding bareback on powerful steeds, the wind whipping my long hair behind me. I see Themiscyra shining brightly in the moonlight reflecting off the calm waters of the lake beside it. I see hands stretched out in worship towards the goddess, moon mother, mother of all, life-giver. I see warriors training for battle. I see her, nodding with approval as my arrow hits its mark. I see her hand stretched out to me as she helps me to my feet again, my backside and my ego bruised by her prowess.

And then I see her, no longer a vision but flesh and blood, crumpling to the ground.

A scream rips the air apart, silence trailing behind it. My throat burns.

The world is me and her and the man who looms over her body. A tall warrior, gleaming in bronze armour, muscles slick with sweat, a red plume trailing from his helmet. A hero.

A monster.

He bends over her, his murderous hands remove her helmet. Blonde hair spills across her already-pale face. A smile plays across his lips.

White hot rage. A wordless roar.

The man looks up, startled, his eyes locking with mine.

Adrenaline pushes me forward.

He picks up a spear. Muscles ripple with the powerful throw.

The impact sends me sprawling.

I lie on my back, remembering the wind, the open sky, freedom. A beautiful woman’s smile, a young man’s obsession, and a wooden horse. So dies all that I hold dear.

The light fades. With my last breath, I turn my head to look at her. My fingers tremble as I try to reach for her, but my strength has fled.

Darkness overwhelms me.

Drawing Inspiration from Travel

One of the things that make my soul sing is exploring the world and I’ve been blogging about travel since 2009. I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited most of Europe, various African countries, and Singapore and Thailand. I’ve even been deep inside the Arctic Circle in search of the northern lights.

Exploring the world is a thrill like no other, and while I’m currently staying close to home until my little one can endure a 12-hour flight, my feet remain itchy and my thoughts often wander to faraway places.

Ah, Venice – one of my favourite places!

Luckily I can draw inspiration from all the places I’ve been and the sights I’ve seen and I use them to infuse my writing. My Mythical Menagerie series was conceived in part specifically as a way to revisit all the cities I love. The first novelette in the series, Beginner’s Luck, is set in London. The prequel, Keeper of Exotic Animals, plays out somewhere in the Alps. I’m currently working on the second installment, which is based in Paris. I have so many ideas for this series that I can hardly keep my excitement contained!

While I’ve, regrettably, not yet had the chance to set foot in the US, my short story Spirit Caller was inspired by my desperate need to see the wild places of America. I want to hear a wolf howl and see redwoods and stand in the shadows of El Capitan and watch a bald eagle soar high overhead.

As both a writer and an avid reader, I’m lucky enough to be able to escape to all these wonderful places, both real and imaginary, on a regular basis. Reading about exotic places is what I do to keep the wanderlust at bay. I’d love to take my readers on just such a journey too.

Do you enjoy travelling? Are you inspired by far-off places? Where is your favourite story set? Do you like reading (or writing) about places you’ve visited or long to see for yourself?

Game On

© Clayton Haugen

“Shit,” Nancy said.

She stared at the blank wall in front of her as if her gaze could punch a hole through it. Trapped in a room without any other exits apart from the corridor she had just run through, Nancy was out of options. A quick glance at her P228 handgun confirmed the worst: only two rounds left. Footsteps echoed behind her.

Nancy spun around to confront her assailants. Quick headcount: four attackers, all sporting heavier weaponry than her little pistol, blocked her escape. Hell, one of them had a MAC-10 sub-machine gun. Even if the guy couldn’t shoot to save his life, she was in for a bad time ambushed in this little space.

She wondered if the rest of her team were dead. No comms were incoming. Nancy weighed her options. There weren’t any. Surrender or die in a blaze of glory. Well, she wasn’t about to surrender.

Plink-plink-plonk.

Nancy had just enough warning to duck sideways before the flash-bang grenade exploded. She opened her eyes again, shaking her head, trying to discern the enemy through the smoke obscuring her vision, ignoring the ringing in her ears. There! She fired a shot and a silhouette went down hard. Three left.

But as the smoke cleared, she could see four people still moving. Nancy’s heart lurched into her throat and she ducked just in time to avoid a round of bullets aimed at her. Instinct and adrenaline fuelled her aim: two shots rang out and two bodies fell to the ground.

“What the..?” Nancy said aloud. Only one of those shots had been hers. Never mind, not important, she reminded herself. Two guys left, but now she was out of ammo.

She drew her knife. It had come down to this.

Another shot rang out and an attacker crumpled to the ground.

A text message scrolled across her communications tab:

HOTSTUD45: Ur welcome, babe. No need 4 thx 4 saving ur hot a$$.

Nancy’s cheeks flushed. She responded:

G4M3RGRL: Didn’t need help from a n00b like you.

Then the message “YOU WIN. GAME OVER” flashed across her screen and she was transported back to the loading screen.

Nancy plucked her noise-cancelling headphones off and stood up, stretching the ache out of her legs. She scanned the arena: the organised chaos of cables, monitors, and flashing computer boxes, geeks in sweaty hoodies, discarded coffee cups, half-empty boxes of pizza. It was a mess. She loved it. Too bad she drew so much attention whenever she moved. Being the only female around a horde of socially inept guys did have its disadvantages.

She had handed in a token and was watching the barista pour a large cup of coffee when someone behind her said: “You know, most guys won’t appreciate being called a noob when they’d just saved someone’s ass.”

“Let me guess – Hot Stud Forty-Five?” Nancy turned to see if his handle was as advertised. She was pleasantly surprised. He was somewhat taller than her, not as greasy or as odorous as she had expected, with a shock of blond hair falling across his face. Nice eyes, she thought as she looked him over. He grinned confidently at her. Perhaps he needed to be taken down a peg or two.

“Most girls don’t appreciate references to how hot their asses are either.”

“Noted,” he replied smoothly. “But in my defence, not a lot of Gamer Girls are actually, you know, girls.”

“So you make a habit of flirting with female avatars even though chances are there’s a guy on the other end?” Nancy smiled at the barista handing her a steaming cup of coffee. Then she reached for the sugar but paused as Hot Stud held three sachets out at her.

“Two,” she said. His fingers brushed hers as she took the sugar from him. A spark ran up her arm and then all the way down her spine. Surprised, she glanced up at his face again. He was still grinning.

He shrugged. “Was bound to get lucky at some point. How about I get you your next cup of coffee?”

“I tell you what, hotshot, how about we each go back to our seats and get back to the game?”

Finally, the smile faltered. He rubbed a hand through his hair, casting his eyes to the floor. When he looked up again, his expression was serious. “Look,” he said, all traces of the player gone now. “We may have started off on the wrong foot. I think you’re a great gamer. The way you handled that situation, that took guts. I’d like to get to know you better. IRL.”

Nancy considered. He wanted to get to know her in real life? Maybe. He did have really nice eyes. And although she wasn’t about to admit it, he had gotten her out of a sticky situation back then.

“Alright, how about this? We keep teaming up, and if we win the competition, coffee’s on me.”

The grin was ear to ear now. “Game on,” was all he said.

Inspiration Board: Spirit Caller

Readers often ask authors where they get their inspiration from. For me, characters often spark my imagination and then I build a story around them. I find these characters in the strangest of places: an avatar in a game I’m playing, an image I see on Pinterest or just a random idea that pops into my head.

The first thing I do after a story idea starts taking shape is hop onto Pinterest and find pictures of the characters and the places in my story. I always, always have an inspiration board perched precariously over my desk while I’m writing. I have trouble focussing on physical features, so it’s incredibly handy to have an image I can refer to. Description of any kind is not naturally my strong point, so whenever I get stuck, I like to look at a real-world picture of someone or somewhere and then modify it to suit my story’s vision.

The board also helps as a reminder whenever I’m in the room to stop procrastinating and sit down and write! And whenever I look at it, whether I’m busy doing my taxes or scrolling through Facebook, the pictures on display keep the current story in the back of my head, letting my subconscious work on it when I’m not actively able to do so.

This is what the inspiration board for my short story, Spirit Caller, looked like:

Spirit Caller inspiration board

It’s a little sparse, but I think you get the general idea. If you’ve read the story, I think you’ll probably know who’s who on there, even if you didn’t picture them exactly like that in your mind. That’s okay. I much prefer to give one or two defining characteristics and then let readers come up with their own images. It’s more fun for everyone involved that way. The pictures on the board are merely my way of putting shape to the people who live in my head (that sounds like I should consider making an appointment with a psychiatrist… Moving swiftly along…).

Do you enjoy these behind-the-scenes details of stories you’ve read? Would you be interested in seeing the inspiration boards for other stories, or does it spoil the vision you have in your head? Do you have inspiration boards too?

What’s up with LitRPG?

I don’t really understand LitRPG. Granted, I’ve only read one novel in the genre and it was, admittedly, mindless fun – but I still don’t really get the appeal of it.

For those of you who don’t know, LitRPG is literature (and I use this term loosely) based on role-playing games (RPGs), such as World of Warcraft or Star Wars The Old Republic, to name a few. In LitRPG stories, the main character is physically immersed in an RPG world and the reader follows their adventure as they, quite literally, level up in the game. There are stats galore as we see the character lose hit points or gain buffs or attain better gear or learn a new skill. It’s like reading about playing your favourite game.

A gnoll hits you for 5HP! Current HP: 15/20
A gnoll hits you for 5HP! Current HP: 10/20
A gnoll hits you for 5HP! Current HP: 5/20

And that’s where I fall out of the bus. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for people reading more, but really, why not just go and play the game? I reinstalled and reactivated my 18-year old Everquest account after finishing one of these books, because it made me so nostalgic about the “good old days” that I wanted to recapture the fun.

So it makes sense if the novels were written in recognisable worlds and perhaps used as marketing material for existing RPG games to get old players to come back or entice new ones, but they’re not. They’re original inventions (possibly loosely based on the writer’s own favourite game or on an old Dungeons & Dungeons campaign, but likely not). And again, I ask, what’s the point?

If you’re going to create a new fantasy world, why not write a straight-up fantasy story? Why encumber it with game mechanics? And why would you want to read about game mechanics when you can go play a game first-hand? Have we reached a new level of laziness where it’s just too much effort to play and level up a game character ourselves and would rather just lie back on the couch
and read about it instead?

Games and Books © Unknown

I can’t really comment on the quality of the genre (having read only one book), but some reviews have indicated that a great many of these LitRPG novels lack in many of the things required for a good story: well-developed characters, a coherent plot and interesting themes. Some of them are basically just a novelisation of a kill-10- rats-receive- a-reward quest line up until you’ve killed enough rats to be able to defeat the big boss. Yawn. Okay, so it’s about the little guy improving his lot in life and moving up in the world, but still, yawn.

A friend suggested that I rewrite my Everquest fan fiction as a LitRPG novel. I was tempted at first, but I’ve decided against it. I would have to change so much to make the world and the magic system unrecognisable from Norrath, and with that kind of effort I may as well just write something original.

Using your characters and campaigns for the basis of a story – that makes sense. Reading about their stats and quest progress – no thanks, I’d rather be behind the keyboard or a console any day.

Do you read or write LitRPG? What is the appeal in it for you? Can you recommend some of your favourite LitRPG novels for anyone interested in giving the genre a go?

Why You Should Consider Writing Fan Fiction

My favourite novel from 2017 was Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, which is about a girl who is obsessed with a fictional world, much like that of Harry Potter, and who writes fan fiction about it which is almost more popular than the author’s books themselves. It reminded me of a time when I honed my own writing skills on Everquest fan fiction. Although I limited myself to the world created for the game, fan fiction writers write about almost anything under the sun, from erotic Twilight spin-offs to alternative Buffy endings and crossovers between Shakespeare and Star Wars.

You may wonder why anyone would spend their days writing about characters and worlds they could never call their own. In my case, I enjoyed documenting and embellishing my adventures in Norrath and the stories serve as a fun reminder of the good times I had playing that game and of the friends I made there. Others like to explore the worlds of their fandoms a little bit more even when the official series has long since been completed or cancelled (oh, Firefly, how we miss you!).

Writing fan fiction is oddly liberating. There is no pressure to write well from anyone but yourself, and the world and characters have already been established, so you only need to take the story further from there. You don’t have to invent something completely new, but can build on the existing lore to explore your fandom further or from a different angle. As long as you stay true to the core of your chosen fandom, you can be as creative as you like. It’s a good way to learn the craft and mechanics of writing without being too serious about it.

Another appealing aspect of writing fan fiction is that you automatically have an engaged audience who love the story (or at least the characters and the world) as much as you do. If you publish your fiction on a reputable fan fiction site, chances are someone will read them and, if you’re lucky, engage with the story and leave comments. That kind of interaction is incredibly rewarding and motivating. You’ll be able to meet and converse with people with the same interest and, perhaps, learn a little more about what makes a good (or bad) story.

If you’re a budding writer with a passion for a particular fandom, or if you’re currently struggling with writer’s block and need a creative boost, or you want some validation from readers, then perhaps you should consider fan fiction. No matter what others may think about the value or quality of the genre, there’s no denying that it can help you hone your writing skills and perhaps even build an audience for your future original work. And hell, it’s fun, and writing should always be fun, or else why bother?

Do you write or read fan fiction? Why? What is your chosen fandom? Feel free to link to some of your fan fiction in the comments below.