Non-character characters

I’m self-publishing my first novel, With Perfect Clarity, which is exciting and fun and terrifying. It’s exciting and fun because I get to call all the shots and do everything exactly how I want it to be done. No rejection letters to deal with, no editor making me change my story in ways I don’t agree with, no book cover selected without my involvement…it’s all MY way, the whole way! Me me me!!!

Of course, then there’s the terrifying aspect…self-publishing means there’s an awful lot of work for me to do, and some of it is really, really hard!

Last spring I decided to hire an editor, and was very fortunate to be able to work with Cindie Geddes of Lucky Bat Books. Cindie’s feedback has been invaluable. Some things that an editor does are pretty basic, like finding that you used the same phrase twice in a paragraph, or point out that you accidentally deleted part of a sentence and failed to notice that before sending her your manuscript. (Oops.) But an editor can do much, much more. Your editor can tell you where – and why – your characters are irritating, when a situation isn’t sufficiently believable, or suggest how to make an important plot point more effective. Since I’m self-publishing I get the final say on everything, which I love because I don’t feel forced to change things that I don’t want to change – but every bit of feedback Cindie has given has been useful. If I choose to not act on a suggestion she’s made, I do so after putting serious thought into why she suggested that change – and in most cases I’ve found myself agreeing with her. My goal is to write well, not to churn words out, and working with an editor on this novel has unquestionably made it better.

Even with all the tweaks and changes, writing is the easy part for me…figuring out what do to for the book cover was not! I know gobs of writers who are not only publishing their own work, but are also designing their own book covers. The level of quality ranges from so-so to fantastic, but even the authors whose covers aren’t stellar seem to know what should go on their covers. Not me! I looked at stock photos, scoured Amazon for images that might give me ideas, and read blog posts and articles about cover design. Nothing felt right – and even worse, none of the artists I found had a style that seemed to fit my writing. Right around when my panic level peaked I happened to email a friend, Steve Lowtwait, who was redesigning my website. (Steve’s design is fantastic, but it is NOT live yet so don’t think he designed the current look – he’s much more talented than that!). It seemed unlikely that Steve would know any artists who specialized in book covers, so I almost didn’t even ask. It turned out that not only did he know someone, but that someone was local!

I’m now working with the very talented Andrew Brozyna. Andrew is a professional book designer who not only has designed a number of books (covers and more) for a variety of publishing houses, he’s also written and self-published a history of his grandfather’s battalion in WWII (just re-released in August by Osprey Publishing), designed and self-published his wife’s cookbooks, and he hosts a blog and podcast on book design with another designer, Ian Shimkoviak.

We started off by meeting in person for an hour or two, which was awesome because I ended up feeling super comfortable with him and stopped panicking. Plus one of the sample books he brought to our meeting was for his wife’s dairy-free ice cream cookbook, and after looking at photo after scrumptious photo I not only had no doubt Andrew knew all about designing books, I also had a slew of yummy recipes I was going to have to try out.

I wrote a messy but accurate synopsis, which felt harder to write than the novel itself, and based on that Andrew came up with the idea of using an image of an old house as the key part of the design. This concept is not only fantastic, I don’t think I would have ever been able to come up with it myself in a million years. This story is written entirely from the point of view of Emma, who is the ghost of a young girl who was killed in Colorado in the 1870s. Emma can’t leave the house she was murdered in, and at some point that house burned down and a different one was built on the same spot – but she is tied to the boundaries of the original house which means she can’t go to every part of the newer house. Because she’s trapped, the house – or really, houses – is like a ‘character’ in the novel. You could argue that perhaps the book cover should show two houses, one on top of the other as if it had been teleported there…but I’m going to trust Andrew’s judgment on this one.

What I’ve found most interesting is that it had never occurred to me that the house was a character, but now it’s ridiculously obvious that it is. For my in-progress selkie novel, I realized very early on that Midsummer is a character, but I have no explanation for why I missed the same concept with the house. I even listened to a Writing Excuses podcast called The City as a Character a month or so ago, but nope. So yay for Andrew!

I love the notion of non-character characters, and I’m curious to see how being aware of it from the start with the next novel impacts the story. In the meantime I’m wrapping up my revisions on With Perfect Clarity, and it’s been a lot of fun to see just how important the ‘character’ of the house is to this novel. And thanks to Cindie and Andrew, the ‘terrifying’ part of self-publishing doesn’t seem so scary after all.

  1. Cindie Geddes

    Thanks for the mention, Jamie! I have to say one of the best parts of my job is getting to read books like With Perfect Clarity before they come out! As someone who loves books that are creepy and make you think, this was a pleasure. I was in Sundance Bookstore the other day (it’s a local indie bookstore that resembles your video store), and I found myself wondering if there were a basement. I blame you.

    I can’t wait to hear what other people think of the book. And I totally agree with your artist. Of course the house is a character (though I hadn’t thought of it as a major player either). A mean, schizo sort of character, but definitely a character. Now you have me thinking about chicken-and-egg issues. Did the house actually have anything to do with causing the plot? Maybe it was innocent before the inciting incidents, but was it after? Could it be? You don’t have to answer (maybe better you don’t, since no one else has gotten the pleasure of reading the book.) How fun to consider!

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