Stylin’

This afternoon I completed the file conversion process and uploaded my new novel to Amazon KDP. Within a couple of days it should be live. (I’ll add a link here to the book page when it becomes purchasable. You are going to buy a copy, I’m sure. And maybe a few extras for your friends?)

If you’re contemplating getting into the self-publishing game, perhaps I can spare you one or two headaches by offering an assortment of possibly relevant details on what I encountered. It’s all very doable, this self-publishing thing, but if you’re not tech-savvy you may want to hire somebody to do the heavy lifting for you. Me, I did it myself.

I write fiction in Scrivener. It’s a lovely word processor, and it will export an EPUB file, which is what Amazon wants you to upload for the e-book. Unfortunately, Scrivener’s EPUB formatting sucks, pretty much. Also, you can’t load an EPUB into the Amazon Kindle app, not on a PC anyway, which means you can’t even discover how badly it sucks. So there’s a multi-step process.

First, use Calibre (free software, yay!) to convert the EPUB to a .mobi file. This is a two-click process. The .mobi file can then be dragged and dropped into Kindle. After discovering how badly Scrivener has hosed the EPUB file, you load it into Sigil (also free, yay!) and start tweaking the .css stylesheet. Then save the edited file, delete the previous version from both Calibre and Kindle, reload into Calibre, re-convert to .mobi, rinse and repeat.

Sounds like fun, not. Fortunately, I have a bit of experience with html and .css, having slapped together my own website 20 years ago. (Not the current website, I hasten to add. That’s a thoroughly professional design, not my own fumble-fingered code.) I even have reference books.

The novel includes several short paragraphs that are handwritten notes sent from one character to another. These needed to be set off from the main text with blank lines. For some unknown reason, Kindle did not want to do this. So I had to edit the margin-bottom and/or the margin-top in the stylesheet. Stuff like that.

Along the way, I designed my own cover. It doesn’t look professional, but I like it. So here’s a tip: Finalize your page count before you start designing the cover. If the spine width changes, your graphic file may be a number of pixels too wide or narrow. Editing a multi-layered graphics file in GIMP (more free software, yay!) to add seven pixels to the right edge of the image is not easy. The KDP website will give you a template to load into GIMP so you can see where the spine will be and how much variance there is in the trim. This is more than handy, it’s essential.

I also did my own interior layout for the paperback, using Adobe InDesign. You don’t want to hear about that process. InDesign is not free, it’s a $22 per month subscription that has been leaching out of my bank account for several years now. As soon as this book is live and I’ve seen a copy, InDesign is going bye-bye. If I ever write another novel, it won’t be ready for prime time for at least two years, possibly longer, so there’s no reason to keep the subscription.

I know a lot of people use Microsoft Word for their e-book and paperback file prep. I can’t even imagine trying to do that. My tools are more toward the expert end of DIY. I guess if you’re a Word expert you can get it to sit up on its hind legs and bark for a biscuit, but doing things like controlling the kerning and placing the drop-caps so they look nice are a lot easier in InDesign, I’m quite certain, because InDesign is a tool for professionals. Word tries to make it eee-Z, and that’s pretty much a recipe for a mess, in my opinion. I’d rather drag the drop-cap into position, edit the stylesheet, and do whatever else is needed.

I do my own copy-editing and proofreading too. If you’re not a professional editor, you would be well advised not to imagine that you can do that. What with one thing and another, there’s a lot more to self-publishing than just writing a good book.

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There’s No Place Like Home

The discovery of planets orbiting other stars continues apace. Science nerds love this stuff, but I’ve come to find it very silly and more than a little disturbing.

The theory that our own planetary system developed out of a cloud of dust and gas dates back, you may be surprised to learn, more than 200 years. The theory is now fairly well developed, though of course it’s developed using mathematical models. Nobody actually gets to watch the process happening, because there would be nothing to see until after the planets had formed, and anyway it takes millions of years. Nonetheless, it’s not at all surprising that many stars (quite likely most of them) are orbited by planets. That some of those planets would have about the same mass as Earth and would orbit in the “Goldilocks zone” of temperature where water is a liquid is not at all surprising.

It’s nice that we now have telescopes powerful enough to do some research in this field. What disturbs me is the unexamined spiritual aura around the search. It’s not enough that we find balls of rock — no. We’re searching for planets that may have life.

Let’s take a step back and examine what that means.

Life is a chemical process. It’s just molecules. So any planet that has the right temperature and combination of ingredients (plenty of water, plenty of carbon, nitrogen, magnesium, and so forth) and that isn’t rendered uninhabitable by meteor bombardment will quite likely support living organisms, or living processes if you prefer. And … so what?

In the first place, we’re never going to go there. Nor will our great-grandchildren ever have the opportunity. Space is simply too vast and the available methods of transportation too slow, too expensive, and too dangerous.

But it’s worse than that. What we now understand about our own planet is that life has existed here for at least 2.5 billion and possibly 3 billion years. And what we know about this is that for the first 2 billion of those years, life consisted entirely of single-celled organisms. Toward the end, maybe a few worms crawling along in the mud at the bottom of some shallow ocean, but basically we’re talking about organisms that would be too small to see with the naked eye, except in large clumps.

For most of the history of our own planet, if a space-faring alien race had happened to drop in for a visit, they would have found … pond scum. That’s it. Pond scum. Not an inspiring prospect, is it? Even if you could fly off to a planet orbiting another star, and even if you had chosen one that almost certainly harbored life, why would you want to visit a place where the big tourist attraction was pond scum?

And then, 500 million years ago, came the Cambrian revolution. Multi-celled life! Zowie! So our imaginary aliens drop in for a visit, and what do they find? A planet overrun by trilobites. Trilobites everywhere, little multi-legged critters crawling over one another, scuttling around in the water, and probably nothing on land but bare rock.

The search for exoplanets that support life is really no more than a Star Trek fantasy. There’s nothing out there that would genuinely be of any interest, except to science geeks like you and me.

Instead of spending millions on these sophisticated instruments and more millions in salaries to the staff that examines the data the instruments scrape up, why not spend the money trying to make sure our own planet remains habitable?

There is no Planet B, folks. There’s no place like home. We’re stuck here, and our descendants will be stuck here quite likely for as long as there are any of them. If we don’t take care of this planet, when our interstellar visitors finally come to visit they’ll probably find nothing but pond scum. And maybe cockroaches. I expect the cockroaches will do all right. We probably don’t have the power to actually bring about the end of life on Earth, but we’re certainly on track to destroy every single species of land-dwelling vertebrate.

We humans quite regularly go haring off after bizarre irrelevancies. The Crusades were not an aberration. We have a real hard time keeping our eye on the ball.

The Earth is the ball. Maybe we could figure out how to keep an eye on it, rather than gazing off into blazing infinity. Fiddling while Rome burns.

Posted in random musings, science fiction | Tagged | 4 Comments

Tune Time

If you play music, everybody wants to know what kind of music you play. Classical? Bluegrass? Prog rock? It’s wearisome. Saying, “I just do whatever pleases me,” is true, but it doesn’t provide much in the way of information.

Some years ago I coined the term “avant-pop” to describe my synthesizer music. It’s heavily influenced by ’80s synth-pop, but with bits of prog or fusion tossed in and a disinclination to follow any particular stylistic trend. Because I don’t sing, it’s all instrumental, but I do like a nice melody.

Before long I’ll have another “CD” to add to my bandcamp page. I have about ten new tracks, most of them near completion. Here, to give you an advance taste, are three pieces that I’ve been polishing up this week. I think we’ll start with “French Nails It”:

I don’t always focus on the emotion in a piece, but “Looking Back” has a wistful feeling to me. And editing the swing rhythms was not a one-click process, believe me:

Quite possibly this next tune, “Human Maneuvers,” will kick off the CD, but I’ll drop it last here because it’s more of a rocker and I don’t want anyone to get the impression that rocking out is all I do. Yes, the title is a reference to two ’80s bands:

All these tracks were done in Reason 11 Suite. I have more plugin synths than ought to be legal, so it’s pretty much impossible to tell you which instruments you’re hearing at any given moment.

No, you won’t hear these pieces on soundcloud, and probably not on youtube either. I don’t like audio compression. The compression algorithms sometimes do hideous things to electronic tones. What you’re hearing here are mp3 files encoded at the upper end 320kbps rate. To my ears, this is bearable (barely). Of course, the results will depend on the quality of your speakers. If you’d like to come over to my house to listen to the music on my system, as I intend it to sound, ping me. You could even take me out to dinner afterward.

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A Mixed Bag

Should our enjoyment of the wonderful things in life lead us to neglect the dangers posed by the bad things? Should our fear of the bad things lead us to lose all enjoyment of the good things?

I’m sure life always serves up a heaping helping of both. I won’t say, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” first because things could certainly be better and they could certainly be worse, and second because when people say that they may not recall the rest of Dickens’s paragraph, which is a remarkable opening for a novel:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….” And so on. What an amazing writer!

On the bleak and wintry side, I’m terribly alarmed by the rise of fascism in the United States. This country has always been a hell-hole of racism and a bastion of pig-headed stupidity, but things do seem rapidly to be getting worse. In the long run, of course, that probably doesn’t matter, because the human race is on track to completely fuck the biosphere. The future belongs to the cockroaches and the crows.

Also on the bleak side, I’m over 70. I’m old. I didn’t ask for any of this shit — the deteriorating eyesight and hearing, the weird patches of dry skin, the occasional bits of clumsiness and forgetfulness — but I wasn’t consulted.

But then there’s the good stuff. I’m healthy, wealthy, and wise. I live in a part of the world that is not being ravaged by missiles fired from American drones. I have some marvelous musical instruments, and I know how to play them. On the Internet I can see things that would have been utterly beyond my reach even 25 years ago. I can even buy tasty frozen dinners at Trader Joe’s!

Keeping a balanced view of all this, not giving way either to gloom or to blind optimism … it’s tricky. I fall back on the Serenity Prayer: The horrible things are, in almost every case, things I can’t change. But I can surround myself with good things and cultivate them.

I had to give up my attempt to start playing again in a community orchestra. Night driving on the freeway to and from rehearsals is just not safe for me anymore. But the good outcome is, now I don’t have to practice those damned annoying triplets in Dvorak Symphony No. 8! I can practice Bach instead. Bach is so much more rewarding.

And that’s the news from Lake Woebegone….

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Cool Hand Luke

So I shared on Facebook one of those cartoons that lampoons a few of the more glaring absurdities in the Bible. One of my FB friends, who is a devout Lutheran, felt that he needed to point out that many of these things are to be interpreted symbolically (he said “spiritually”) rather than being taken as literal truth. The cartoon noted that “God non-consensually impregnated a teenage girl,” to which my friend responded, “Theological nitpick: The Holy Spirit had Mary’s consent.”

He added, “Mary is nowhere shown as unwilling to bear the Christ child.” Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The fact that we’re never told she was unwilling cannot possibly create a viable inference that she was willing.

I thought the question of consent was interesting, so I googled it. The relevant passage is in Luke 1:27-38. If you believe a word in the Bible (I don’t, but millions of Christians certainly do), it’s quite clear that Mary never gave her consent. She was raped. No other interpretation is even remotely reasonable.

Gabriel appears before Mary. What he does not do is say to to her, “God would like you to have his baby. Are you okay with that?” Gabriel never asks her a question. He never asks for her consent, or considers that she might not be willing. What he says — this is the King James version, but other translations I’ve looked at differ in no significant way — is this: “And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son.” He also says, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.”

Notice the verbs there. “Shalt” and “shall” mean it’s a done deal. He presents it as a fact — as a fait accompli. No argument is possible. Mary, who is of course no more in a position to assert her independence than any peasant woman in the ancient world, replies, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

This is not consent. What she is saying, in modern English, is, “I’m only a servant. He can do with me whatever he wishes.”

If you believe a word of this preposterous story, you’re stuck with it. Mary was raped.

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Informal

From time to time, moved by an impulse that’s nearly as obscure as dark matter, I find myself writing a text adventure game. Over the years I’ve written and released half a dozen of them, the first in 1999 and the most recent only last year. I’ve done this using several specialized programming languages — Inform 6, Inform 7, and TADS 3.

I’m not going to regale you today with my assorted opinions about text adventures (a type of software amusement that is typically dignified by the term “interactive fiction”) and the programming languages with which they’re authored. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow or next week. Right now I’m leading up to something specific here; bear with me.

In 2009 I taught a class of home-school kids a bit about how to write a game using Inform 7. I can’t say the class was enormously successful, but the kids had fun, and I got paid. In the process, I realized that the Inform 7 documentation was not really very well structured as a teaching tool. So I wrote a book that took a different approach to explaining how to use I7. Imaginatively, I called it The Inform 7 Handbook. I made it available (for free) to the interactive fiction authoring community, and some people have downloaded and used it. One author recently posted a message in which she referred to it as her bible, which I suppose made me feel like Moses bearing the tablets. Or maybe like Lot’s wife. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

But I digress. Between 2009 and 2015 I7 was updated two or three times, so in 2015 I updated the Handbook. You can download it, if so inclined, at http://www.musicwords.net/if/I7Handbook6x9.pdf (also available formatted for 8-1/2 x 11 as http://www.musicwords.net/if/I7Handbook8x11.pdf) or get the word processor version at http://www.musicwords.net/if/I7Handbook.odt.

And now another six years have gone by. I7 has not been updated significantly by its author, Graham Nelson, during the intervening time, and I’m not going to rant about that, not right now. What has changed significantly is the ecosystem of third-party extensions.

Inform 7 provides, by design, a bare-bones world model. Dozens of developers have filled in the gaps with various extensions, some of them quite slick. To add an extension to the game you’re writing, you just type something like “Include Small Kindnesses by Aaron Reed.” (I know that doesn’t look like computer code, but it is. I’m definitely not going to explain that today.) Some of the older extensions were slick at the time, but the developers, being unpaid and less than fully committed to supporting the I7 community (and it’s hard to blame them, given that Graham Nelson himself seems not to … oh, wait, I wasn’t going to rant about that), may not have updated their extensions for compatibility with the 2015 release.

Also, the extensions library has started wandering from place to place on the Internet. For a while it was on the Inform 7 website. Then it was on a site maintained by Inform guru Emily Short. This year it’s on github. There are now quite a lot of I7 extensions on github (at https://github.com/i7/extensions/), and you can download them all in a single zip file.

Here’s one: Inline Hyperlinks by Daniel Stelzer. A simple syntax for creating links in the game’s output text so the player can click or tap a word rather than typing it. That could be useful. It compiles without a problem. And … it doesn’t work. The words appear as links, but clicking on them does bupkis.

For all these reasons, the section of the Handbook that discusses extensions is now woefully out of date. So really I ought to update it, yes? But by now there are upwards of 300 extensions, some of them obsolete, some of them buggy — and by now my I7 programming chops are about as polished as a block of cheese that has been sitting at the back of the refrigerator for six years, so figuring out which extensions to recommend in the Handbook and how to instruct people on fixing the ones that are broken is not going to be a stroll in the park.

Maybe I should just tell everybody, “If you want an updated handbook, just download the word processor file and have at it.” But I do feel a sense of responsibility.

You are standing in an open field west of a white house with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here….

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Art à la Carte

There is a school of thought that would insist that great art embodies powerful human emotions, and perhaps as a corollary that the greatest art is that which conveys human emotions most powerfully, that a work of art that fails to convey emotion is an artistic failure.

This is wrong.

A work of art — any work, be it great, modest, bold, humdrum, or irremediably defective — can embody various perceptions, ideas, techniques, and, yes, emotions in various ways. Often in several ways at once. Emotion is only one of the colors in the artist’s palette. Whether it is the most important element in a work or a relatively minor element is up to the taste and inclinations of the artist.

As sometimes happens, I got into an argument on Facebook, or let’s call it a spirited discussion. An argument with, as often happens, a stranger. He linked to a video of Yo-Yo Ma playing a Bach cello suite and dared me to gaze at the rapture on Ma’s face and doubt that art was about emotion. Worse, he insulted me by saying my life must be dull if I don’t understand and embrace his view.

I don’t respond well to insults on Facebook. I use my blog to jam importunate strangers into the ground. The perfect counter-example to his Yo-Yo Ma video is, of course, a performance — any performance — by Glenn Gould. Gould was as great a Bach interpreter as Ma. His posture at the piano was hunched, expressionless. When beginning a fugue, he would sometimes conduct the hand playing the opening subject by waving the fingers of his free hand; that was as close as he ever got to expressive body language. The effect was almost clinical, but it was never dry. His interpretations were vivid and surprising.

My opponent really shouldn’t have gone straight to Bach, because the music of Bach is not, in most cases, filled with emotion. A few of his pieces are deeply emotional. I don’t know his liturgical work, but I’ve always felt the second cello suite is steeped in tragedy. But in many of Bach’s pieces the primary point of interest is not the emotion being expressed. We may be able to hear the emotion. We may be able to state that a given piece is tranquil, or playful, or powerful. But that’s not the point. Bach wasn’t writing the music in order to express playfulness, or power, or tranquility. His concerns generally had as much to do with formal structure and the development of ideas as with any expression of a particular emotion. The idiom in which he wrote wasn’t even very well equipped to express emotion.

Art became an exercise in the expression of strong emotion only in the 19th century. In music, it was Beethoven. Beethoven was idolized by other composers in the 19th century not only, and not primarily, for his ability to manipulate motivic material. He was idolized because he poured strong emotions into his music. Throughout the century, composers felt that that was their job. And of course audiences agreed!

But compare and contrast a Beethoven symphony, any of them, with a minuet by Mozart. I defy you to find a shred of emotion anywhere in a Mozart minuet. But that doesn’t make it any less a work of art than a Beethoven symphony. Well, okay, the minuet in the G minor viola quintet has some rather anguished chord stabs, but that’s an isolated instance, not the sort of thing Mozart usually did.

Mozart’s artistic goals were different, that’s all. In fact, Bach was not highly regarded in the years when Beethoven flourished. Years passed before there was a growing awareness in the European classical music community of Bach’s extraordinary mastery and importance. Much of his work was unpublished during his lifetime, and a great deal of effort went into finding the scattered manuscript copies and preserving them.

Or consider Michelangelo’s David. Is there any emotion in it? Not that I can see. It’s a triumphal work of art, but it’s not about emotion, neither Michelangelo’s nor David’s. Or, in literature, how about Finnegans Wake? Whatever we may think of it (I don’t care much for it, myself), it is certainly a massive and important work of art. If there’s any emotion in it, it’s the emotion you find in yourself while reading it. The words on the page are not conveying emotion; as far as we can tell, that wasn’t what Joyce set out to do.

Some novelists feel that their duty is to explore the depths of the human condition, preferably with strong doses of emotion in every chapter. If they choose to do that, that’s perfectly all right. That’s one of the ways of making art. But I don’t enjoy reading that sort of thing, except in small doses. When I pick up a book, I want to be entertained! I’m more likely to read (or re-read) one of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder mysteries than I am to pick up a serious novel that flogs me with passion.

To entertain is a perfectly legitimate aspiration for an artist. A work that entertains, or that, like a Bach fugue, dazzles us with its formal beauty, is not a lesser work. Art doesn’t have to jab us or demand that we excavate our life trauma. It can be quietly beautiful and refer to nothing outside of itself. It can hint at human experiences, including emotions, without being explicit.

Honestly, I’m surprised I have to point this out, but some people are still stuck in the 19th century.

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Cover Story II

When someone puts up a web page showing off their portfolio of gorgeous book cover designs, and when they’re charging copious amounts of money to design your cover for you, you’d think you’d get a beautiful cover, first crack out of the gate.

You’d think.

To follow up on yesterday’s rant about the perils of cover design, I’m going to show you the tripe that was shoveled at me last week under the pretense that it was suitable for a book cover. I’m not going to name the company, because I want to be able to fling insults at their work without fear of getting sued.

The designers in cover design companies are never shooting blind. They always ask for details about your book, including visual ideas you may have. My book is a YA fantasy mystery called Woven of Death & Starlight. Since there’s a murder scene with a bloody sword, I suggested that as one of the possible elements. In another scene there are some gnarled, bare-branched trees (it’s late autumn), so I suggested that a tree branch or two might lurk or intrude along the edge of the cover to add some ominous flavor. But of course it’s YA fantasy, so the lead character is a 17-year-old girl. I also mentioned ribbons, because the magic in the story is to do with weaving.

The deal is, after receiving a hefty cash advance, this company sends you two concepts. If you don’t like either of those, they’ll come up with a third one. Here are their first two crude stabs at my cover:

The first one is rather elegant, I’ll give it that, but it’s murky. There’s no glow to it. You have to stare at it for a few seconds to figure out that you’re seeing a rear view of a young woman: That’s her hair and her left arm. The sword crossing the image diagonally like that shouts “battle fantasy,” which is exactly the opposite of my story.

The second one is worse. Are those fat things ribbons? I didn’t say anything about blood on the ribbons. And a burnished steel font for a YA fantasy? This is shockingly clueless.

So I said, “Let’s try again.” Here is their next concept:

The tree, which I suggested as a peripheral element, has somehow become the main element in the design. The typeface is Bodoni MT Italic (I happen to have it on my computer, so I was able to identify it) without the slightest adornment, so it’s frankly cheap. The sword no longer has blood, and it’s positioned in a way that clearly says “Christianity,” even though I had never mentioned Christianity in my description to them of the book — and wouldn’t have, as Christianity has absolutely nothing to do with the story. If you zoom in, even in this reduced jpg you may be able to see that a fabric texture has been underlaid or overlaid on the entire image, which makes it fuzzy rather than crisp. And where is the glow? Do they honestly think this shit is going to entice readers?

We went on from there through a few more design concepts before I decided to throw in the towel. The point is, I shouldn’t have had to keep trying to chivvy them into a decent design. They purport to be professionals! Why am I being served these slabs of crap?

If I want an amateurish cover design, I can do it myself, with a lot less aggravation and a lot less outlay of cash. Right now I’m downloading some free fonts….

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The Cover Story

Okay, so you’re writing fiction. After being ignored by a few literary agents (or maybe more than a few), you’ve decided that self-publishing is the way to go. This is likely to be a sensible choice, for several reasons. You’ll make more money per copy sold, you won’t have an editor telling you to cut 10,000 words, and you won’t have to wait two or three years to see your book in print.

The downside is, you’re going to have to handle a bunch of stuff yourself that a publisher would handle for you. Editing and proof-reading would be near the top of the list. But today I’m contemplating cover art. Specifically, the fraught and perilous process of commissioning cover art for your novel.

I’ve done it a few times. That banner up at the top of the blog shows part of the cover art for my Leafstone epic. These covers were done by Karri Klawiter (artbykarri.com), and I like the covers for books 1, 3, and 4 a lot. I’ve never liked the cover of book 2. I had her redo it entirely, and I don’t like the new one much better than I liked the original. And do you see that water flowing from the pitcher on book 3? I had to go back to Karri with more requests on that water about five times to get it to where it looked right. She did the work, and she’s a talented artist, but I had to ride herd all the way down the line.

I’ve brought out three more books since then, all with commissioned cover art, each of which has involved a struggle of one sort or another to arrive at a good design. One of the hidden advantages of being published by a major publishing house is that you have no control at all over the cover. The first time you’ll see it is when they send you copies of the finished book. Or at least that’s the way it used to be. It’s been 30 years since I had a novel published by a New York house.

Right now I’m trying to get a cover for my next book. I’ve already spent upwards of $400. And what I have is nothing I can use.

It’s a truism in self-publishing that everybody makes money except the author. You pay for editing, you pay for cover art, you pay for interior layout and design, you even pay for the ISBNs so your book will be registered as a commercial product. That’s not to say that some self-publishing authors don’t make money, because a few of us do. But most self-publishing authors can expect to see a very modest return on their investment of time, passion, and cash.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Cover art. I’m just about ready to throw in the towel and design a boring all-type cover myself using GIMP. Will it sell the book? No, it will not. Do I care? Probably not.

I have to own part of the problem myself. The book, which is called Woven of Death & Starlight, is YA fantasy, but it’s also a whodunit. The fantasy part is not big or dramatic, it’s just some magic stuff. (There will be more magic in the sequel, which I’ve already started writing, but don’t hold your breath. It may not appear for two or three years. I write quickly, but I also revise extensively.) There’s some YA romance. There are even paragraphs about clothing: I was aiming at the genre. But the whodunit has several scenes with, like, actual blood, so the story will meet the expectations of a typical YA reader rather badly.

The story is not a good fit for any genre, and that’s part of the problem. Book cover designers, of whom there is no shortage on the World Wide Web, spend most of their time designing generic covers. In fact, you can buy a pre-made cover (for a lot less money) rather than commissioning a designer to do something special just for you. The designer slaps your author name and book title on a cover design they whipped out last month, and you’re ready to go. It’s as generic as all holy shit, but you don’t care about that. The book looks terrific! In fact, the cover is probably a lot more professional quality than your writing. But I digress.

Just for kicks, I grabbed some fantasy covers from the website portfolios of a couple of designers. I’m not out to criticize these designers. Their covers are very good indeed. But they’re generic fantasy. Handsome young people (usually of the female persuasion). Glowing colors. Viz, to wit:

It is to barf. Here’s another slate, from a different designer:

You’ll notice that this second set are pre-mades. In place of the author name, the designer’s company is shown, so I can’t hide their identity. If you like this sort of thing, now you know where to find it. But if you’re champing at the bit to see my all-time favorite Ultimate Bad Fantasy Cover, wait no longer:

I grabbed this from an actual cover designer’s actual Web portfolio. And I’ll tell you something: That’s an illustration, not a photo treatment. Illustrations are not cheap! This one is, of course, stunningly cheap, but in an entirely different sense.

I’m tired of hassling over this stuff. I’d rather spend my time and energy (what of it remains in the reservoir now that I’ve passed my 70th birthday) actually writing.

Maybe instead of doing an all-type cover, I’ll just flat-out steal the cover of Dino Island. What do you think? It would sell more books.

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French Fried

As the world turns…. Exactly a year ago, in this very blog, I was grousing about how hard it was to find an online course that teaches French the way I want to learn it. Sadly, nothing has changed, but I think maybe I finally have a better handle now on the nature of the disconnect.

Part of the problem is just that the online courses are not very good. I’ve gotten burnt out on Duolingo because it’s so repetitive. You’re plodding along endlessly. I’ve learned a lot of vocabulary and a fair amount of grammar on Duolingo — and for free — but the repetitions are endless. Also, there is seldom any tutorial material that would explain what you’re learning. Sometimes the English translations are dodgy, and that leads one to worry that the French sentences may occasionally be incorrect too. You don’t get real French speakers in Duolingo, you get a speech synthesizer. And it’s almost all single-sentence chunks, with absolutely no context. This can leave you guessing.

Beyond that, the assumption made by the people who assemble the material is that you want to do commonplace things — order a meal in a restaurant, shop for clothing in a store, buy groceries, use a computer, go on vacation, show your passport to the agent at the airport, stuff like that. It’s boring.

This week I’ve been trying out Busuu. They use real audio from French speakers, and that’s good. On the other hand, Busuu quite routinely tosses French sentences at you without translating them. How is this supposed to be pedagogically sound? When they do translate, they try way too hard to be idiomatic. A jolly example of a Busuu fail is when they translate, “C’est pas terrible” as “It’s not great.” (This is in a conversation in a restaurant.) Busuu’s English is as occasionally slipshod as Duolingo’s. And the topics are much the same — French pastries, French bread, French cheese, snails and oysters. Personally, I don’t give a flying fuck about French food, but the Busuu content is aimed at a typical French learner, probably a tourist and wannabe gastronome.

Other online courses, such as Lingoda and Lingoni, are strongly oriented toward conversation. After looking at a few sample videos, I’m thinking no, that’s not for me. And that’s the light bulb moment. What I want is to learn to read and write French. It’s not that I don’t expect ever to want to speak the language or understand it when it’s spoken, but for my purposes reading and writing are the foundation. Once I have absorbed a fat slab of written French, preferably in chunks that are longer than a single paragraph, my brain will begin to understand how to form sentences and speak them aloud. For me, the idea of trying to say something aloud without simultaneously assembling it in my brain as a written sentence is just a non-starter. I’m a writer, you see. That’s surely how I learned to speak my native English when I was two years old, but that was rather a long time ago.

A small online class with a native French speaker, which you can sign up for (for ten bucks a class or thereabouts) would be utterly useless for me. I don’t want conversational French! Give me a book I can read, and a detailed explanation of the new language concepts that the text in this chapter will introduce.

Sure, I can buy books. I have the first Harry Potter book in French. Also “Le Petit Prince.” But those books don’t have technical explanations of what’s on the page. They’re just another variety of immersion. I hate immersion. I want to actually learn.

So I’m searching online for French textbooks. I find a list that includes a book called Complete French. And here’s part of the description: “The methodology of this book is what they call the Discovery Method, which means you figure out the rules and patterns on your own in order to learn them better.” What utter bullshit! The “Discovery Method” is just immersion with a fancy name. It’s an excuse proffered by some nitwit who didn’t have a clue how to write a proper textbook, but managed somehow to sell a book proposal to the publisher anyhow. Although, on examining the Amazon book page, I don’t see a publisher listed. I’m guessing the author’s proposal was so weak she had to publish the book herself.

I already own two of the textbooks at the top of that particular list. Guess I’d better get crackin’.

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