On the edge of a cliff

I’ve added an extra level of complication – and fun! – to my life by signing up for the Cliffhangers workshop taught by Dean Wesley Smith. This is the third class I’ve taken from Dean, and the first one I’ve taken online; he just started offering online workshops this year.

I’ve read lots of good cliffhangers, but finding the really great ones when you’re trying to look for examples to study is surprisingly difficult. One tried and true way to end a chapter or story section is to have your character become unconscious. They can faint, get hit over the head, be anesthetized…but just go try to find a scene like this in a book right now! It’s funny how hard it is to find examples of something you’ve seen done a zillion times.

Perseverance helps, and I’ve been learning more about how to write good cliffhangers by re-reading the ends of chapters – as well as the beginnings of chapters, because it’s important to start the next chapter in a way that supports, and often even enhances, the power of the cliffhanger.

To complement the class, I’ve been browsing through my writing books to see what other people have to say on the subject. I found this in Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass:

“Cliff-hangers are a tried and true, if clumsy, way to propel a reader from scene to scene or chapter to chapter.”

Maass is indeed correct that many, many books utilize cliffhangers in a simple way, and he points out that even when “clunky” they are still useful. Who doesn’t feel the tension when you have to put a book down not knowing if the hero will be able to escape from what is clearly imminent death? But there is a lot more you can do than leave your readers on pins and needles. You can reach into their hearts and squeeze.

This is done masterfully in Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. In the world the protagonist Lyra lives in, every human being has a ‘daemon’ which is essentially his or her soul in an animal form. One chapter ends with Lyra’s discovery of a young boy whose daemon has been severed from him; once severed a daemon can never be reattached. It’s a horrifying thing for Lyra to find, and it’s horrifying to the reader as well – partly because the reader feels Lyra’s pain, and partly because the concept of having one’s soul removed is so abhorrent. This cliffhanger is incredibly powerful is because it affects the reader on a deep emotional level.

Our standard way of looking at cliffhangers matches this excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on cliffhangers:

“A cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device in fiction which features a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma, or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction. A cliffhanger is hoped to ensure the audience will return to see how the characters resolve the dilemma.”

That’s how I looked at cliffhangers before Dean’s class, but my viewpoint has changed. I now look at them instead as: what will make the reader feel compelled to turn the page? Whatever form your cliffhanger takes – whether there’s danger, or a secret is revealed, or you merely provide a subtle hint about something that might happen later – it should keep your readers up at night because they can’t put your book down. That’s what really matters, and that’s why I’m studying cliffhangers.

And since I’m on the topic of cliffs, here’s a photo I took while hanging off of one years ago:

Under the book cover

Designing a book cover is a lot of work.

Fortunately for me, Andrew is doing all of the hard stuff. I can look at an image and point out things I like or dislike, but coming up with the content in the first place is excruciatingly difficult for me.

Last weekend hammered this point home, as if I needed more clarification. Andrew had put together three possible cover designs, all incorporating a house in some way. I love this concept because Emma, the protagonist, is trapped in the house she was murdered in, and therefore the house is a major presence in the story. Out of the three designs, one jumped out immediately. The next step was for me to review potential images and fonts and provide Andrew with feedback so that he could make the cover fit the story even more.


One long and grueling weekend later I had come up with twelve potential house images, more than twenty font options, no new alternatives for the background image, and a significant amount of my hair had turned white. Fortunately I dye my hair so no one can tell, but I know it’s there.

For example, suppose the title was in this font:

That seems good enough, doesn’t it? But it makes sense to look at another for comparison, say:

I like the ‘P’ better in the second version, but then the C has those little bars on the edges. So maybe there’s a better alternative; possibly this one:

That one is nice too. It’s also wider than the other two – but is it too wide? Maybe the words should be larger and spread out a bit, like so:

And now you can see that the size of the font changes how you feel about it – at least it does for me. I liked the ‘a’ better in the third example – now it feels a little misshapen even though it’s the same font type. Maybe another font with different word placement…

Better? Worse? Throw in font colors, transparency (or not), multiple images…ack!!!!!

I find the power elements of a cover can have to be fascinating. Some fonts feel like they encourage the viewer to read the story, whereas others do just the opposite. Do they really? I have no idea. But it seems logical. It’s also been interesting to see the difference between the large cover, like what you’d see on a hardback or paperback, and the thumbnail image, which is what you’d see if you were browsing on a site like Amazon. A design might work well for the larger image, but not the smaller – for example, the house and background images blended together in the thumbnail for the first version of the current design. That was fine because that version was intended to be a proof of concept, but it was a good lesson for me because it took me a full week before I thought to look at the thumbnail. (I’m sure Andrew knew all of this from the start…remember I said this is not my strong suit…)

At least I knew up front that this was not my forte, so Andrew gets to do what he’s good at, I can provide feedback – which feels doable, now that we’re past the initial image and font selection – and I can focus on something fun, like wrapping up the last few manuscript revisions!

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.

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