I’m doing something a little different with this post – I’m actually interviewing a fellow author! I came across Jay Jordan Hawke several years ago through his self-published novel, A Scout is Brave. I enjoyed the book very much and we became Facebook friends over time. When he told me he had written a new book, I recommended the publisher of my novel, Children of the Knight, and they accepted his new story without hesitation. Pukawiss the Outcast is a standalone prequel to A Scout is Brave and a wonderful, magical story that I loved. So I decided to find out more about this book and the background of the man who wrote it. So here’s the interview (my first one and no, it doesn’t have fancy formatting so please don’t bag on me for that. Ha!)
MJB: Tell us about your new book? What’s it about and why did you write it?
I wrote it as a stand-alone prequel to my first novel, A Scout is Brave. I created the character of Joshua for that novel, and I liked him so much I wanted to explore his character further. I wanted to show the readers the world Joshua came from, and what shaped him as a person. In short, I wanted to immerse him in reservation life. I also wanted to write it because I attend powwows on nearby reservations, and it occurred to me a few years ago that no one has ever done anything about powwows. We have all these sports movies about the underdog rising up and winning in the end, wouldn’t it be cool to explore that theme in a competition powwow? So I decided to take Joshua from A Scout is Brave and explore his training as he learns how to Fancy Dance, and at the same time learns about who he is. Finally, I wanted to explore the contrasting views of gay people prevalent in many traditional societies with mainstream Christianity. People don’t know that many cultures not only tolerated gay people, but openly celebrated them.
MJB: I’ve been to some powwows out here in California and they are spectacular. I love Native American traditions and thoroughly enjoyed that aspect of your book. So, what makes you angry?
People who don’t believe in equal rights. People who think that their religious perspective should be the law of the land. Bullying angers me. Basically, injustice angers me. Oh, and stupid drivers who keep cutting me off on the way home from work. That really gets me mad!
MJB: I’m right with you on all counts. Personally, I think most bad drivers are just bullies with cars. So, how important do you think villains are in a story?
I think some kind of villain is necessary if you want to keep the reader’s attention. Stories are more interesting if the main character has someone to fight against. I try to write really memorable villains in my stories. In my first novel, A Scout is Brave, Levi was the villain, and I wrote him to be the perfect embodiment of a bully. I’m a little more subtle in Pukawiss the Outcast, because the book has a very different tone. But it’s clear, by the end, who the villain is. I should point out that the villain doesn’t necessarily have to be another person. It could be an inner struggle against your inner demons, so to speak. Those stories can be just as compelling. And often villains are simply an embodiment of those inner struggles anyway.
MJB: Are any of your characters in Pukawiss based on real people you have known, especially Joshua and Gentle Eagle? Can you tell us a little about the real people or, if these are wholly made up, what inspired you to write them as they are?
Joshua has some of my characteristics, but mostly he’s my invention. I’ve never known anyone like him before. I originally created him to correct some of my own weaknesses. He embodies courage and self-confidence, he’s athletic, and he quickly adapts to new and unusual situations – no matter how terrible or terrifying. He has some of my qualities, but mostly I created in him the person I wish I was more like. Gentle Eagle is his kind-hearted Grandfather, who also happens to be really cool. There is a bit of my own grandfather in him, although my grandfather didn’t have mad guitar skills. The villains are conglomerate characters of people I have actually known – from cold-hearted preachers, to simple-minded bigots, to high school bullies — I unfortunately have had too much contact with them.
MJB: I agree that Joshua is a delightful, inspiring, and immensely likable protagonist, the kind of kid we readers want to see succeed. It’s sad you have had run-ins with so many rotten people in your life. I especially noted in both your books the negativity of the Christian characters. They are extremist and bigoted, not in any way reflecting the values modeled by Jesus Christ, and thus give the impression (at least to Joshua in the book) that all Christians are like them. Are these the only kinds of Christians you have met in your life, or do you know any who actually live the faith according to the Christ-model? If you do know any who truly live “love thy neighbor,” was there a specific reason for focusing on the extreme haters?
I think I promote a very positive message of God in my book, unless you have a limited understanding of God. God is not Christian, in my opinion. He transcends dogma, and he especially transcends human hatred and bigotry. In that respect, Christianity certainly doesn’t measure up in my novels. But let’s face it, if Christians interpreted the Christian message the way you do, then the past 2,000 years would have been very different, and my Ojibwe protagonist wouldn’t be living on a reservation where they are trying to preserve what’s left of Ojibwe culture. My Christian characters are not extremists or out of place for the Midwest, especially in the small rural community where Joshua is from – they are mainstream. In short, yes, those are pretty much the only kind of Christians I’ve encountered—from the small conservative Christian farm town in which I grew up, to the conservative Christian college I went to, to the conservative school in which I currently work. If anything, I give my Christian characters more humanity that the people I actually knew deserve. Currently, I can’t even tell people around here that I’m a published author, because I’d be fired in a second by the conservative Christian administration that always talks about God’s love and family values. Imagine being a published author and not being able to tell anyone? And it’s not just bigotry toward gay people. Religious differences are highly suspect as well. Having said all that, I’m deeply religious, or spiritual, whatever word you want to use. And I try to demonstrate a love for the spiritual in my novels. You can’t read my novels for very long without picking up on that. Christians have taught gay people that God hates them for thousands of years, causing many gay people to turn away from that message. The greatest crime Christians have committed is taking God away from gay people. I’m trying to give him back. It may not be the Christian God though. But it’s a much friendlier one.
MJB: I guess growing up in California is way different. I grew up Catholic and even as a child when the dogma was much more rigid, never once did I hear priests or nuns or other Catholics or my parents speak ill of gays or minorities or even other religions. So growing up I accepted everyone at face value, and still do. For me, that’s the Jesus I came to know and accept. Sadly, as with all religions, over the centuries people have put in their own prejudices and agendas and corrupted the original message. Kids should know the beauty of all religious faiths, including Native traditions, which I personally admire. There’ve been far too many people dragging the Creator’s name through the mud, and those of us who understand that must fight to change it. Moving on, Pukawiss takes place in 1998. Are the Ojibwe youth of today, like Mokwa in your story, as accepting of gay, or two-spirit, youth as he was in the book? What about other tribes? On modern reservations, are gay youth treated with respect like in the old days when two-spirits were considered touched by God?
It really depends on which reservation. The one I based the book on is a real place, although it is not mentioned by name. The very first gay-positive person I ever met lived on that reservation. Her name was Linda, and she was part Lakota, who lived with an Ojibwa man on the Rez. I also met a Midewin on the Rez, who rejected the judgmental attitudes of Christianity with respect to gay people. It was such a shocking contrast to the world in which I grew up. Having said that, homophobia is also still a very sad reality on many reservations that have succumbed to over a century of missionary attempts to suppress the two-spirit tradition.
MJB: Without giving too much away, I loved how you helped Joshua accept and love himself by having him learn about the outcast, Pukawiss. That was very affirming. I love dreams in books, and often use them in my own. Prophetic dreams are a big part of your story because they are a big part of Native tradition. Have you ever had a dream that turned out to be prophetic, even in a small way? Do modern Indians still treat their dreams as messages and act on them accordingly?
My story definitely has a lot of supernatural elements in it, as does its sequel. Since the book immerses the readers in Ojibwe life on the reservation, I felt I couldn’t do justice to the story without demonstrating how pervasive the supernatural, the mystical, whatever you want to call it, is on the reservation. Traditionally, it would have been normal for Joshua to be both a two-spirit and a powerful dreamer. The two went together. Dreams were considered messages from the spirits, and gay people were especially adept at listening to and interpreting them. Joshua’s two-spirit status would likely have been revealed to him in a dream in earlier times. And yes, part of that is still there on the Rez today. The power of dreams is especially prevalent and is a central element in the story. The lead character, Joshua, discovers that through dreams, he can peer into the future and capture brief, often puzzling, fragments of what is to come. I believe there is a larger reality beyond the one we know about – and that one can access it through dreams. I have had many experiences with dreams of my own – both fascinating and terrifying. A lot of the stuff involving Joshua’s dream reality, especially in the sequel to Pukawiss, were dreams I’ve actually experienced. If the storms seem vivid and real, it’s because I was describing what I’ve known. My name, Jay Jordan Hawke, by the way, was given to me in a dream. I’m not kidding about that.
MJB: That’s awesome about your name! How cool is that? Wow. So tell me, do many modern Ojibwe still follow the old ways as Gentle Eagle does in this book (i.e. do they still have naming ceremonies, for example?)
Absolutely! A lot of what I described in the book comes from things I’ve experienced on the Rez. Ritual and ceremony are not for special occasions, they are practically an every day occurrence. And it all comes without the hateful dogma that so characterizes the churches I’ve been to. It’s pure God, without all the hate.
MJB: It would be a powerful experience, for me, at least, to witness some of those ceremonies. We tend to think we know everything with our technology and science, but there’s so much we can learn from the old ways if we’re willing. I love the naming ceremony and the whole concept behind it. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could all be given names that befit our nature? Okay, I’m rambling. Ha! Next question: if you could have a dinner party and invite anyone dead or alive, who would you ask?
I tend to side with the underdogs of history, the people who lost. In that spirit, I would love to have dinner with Tecumseh. Tecumseh was a Shawnee leader, who managed to unite the tribes of the Midwest to defend it from the expansion of the Americans onto their lands. He even allied with the English, who he fought with during the War of 1812. Tecumseh also stands out as someone who transcended his time. He abhorred torture of prisoners, for example, and would order his followers not to harm white captives. You got to respect someone like that. Besides that, maybe Alexander the Great if only because he could give Tecumseh some really good battle strategies that may help him when he returns to his own time. Oh, and Harry Styles. Tecumseh, Alexander the Great, and Harry Styles – what a dinner that would be.
MJB: Ha! Yes, those three together would be the YouTube download of the century. Funny you mention Harry Styles because he has a recurring Twitter cameo in my Children of the Knight sequel tweeting messages of support to my main character who is being harassed by the media. And then he has an actual cameo in the third book. Not sure he’ll make it into the final release versions, but he seems like a good guy who doesn’t let any of the media nastiness get to him. Okay, lastly and most importantly, is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I would like my readers to understand that the stigma against homosexuality is the only thing that is not natural. It is also not universal. Pukawiss the Outcast celebrates a very common Native American tradition that venerates gay people. It may seem like the whole world, and all of history, is against you. But that simply is not true. Imagine living in a world where as a gay person you are considered something extra special—that you are in fact touched by God. That’s a radically different world from the one most gay teens grow up in today. I want people to see what that is like through the eyes of my teen protagonist.
MJB: Thank you, Jay, for a fascinating and very honest interview. Personally, I hope you meet some followers of Jesus, as I have, who actually embody the faith, and people in general who are not so narrow-minded period! Sadly, politics is all polarized, too, because both the left and the right are convinced all of life’s answers come from a single playbook when most of us live our lives in the middle. Human nature is far too complex for any one-size-fits-all dogma. What we need in this country, and this world, is balance, something the Native traditions extolled. Unfortunately “balance” seems to be a dirty word in the 21st Century. Take care, Jay, and please, give us more Joshua stories!
You can purchase Pukawiss the Outcast from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or the publisher, Harmony Ink Press. It’s a great read!
I know, that sounds like the plot of a Stephen King novel, right? Novelist stalked by his murderous main character who springs to life from the pages of his latest book! Oh wait, that was a Stephen King novel. Ha! However far-fetched that and other stories of a similar ilk may be, I’m here to attest to the essential reality of this peculiar notion, and to answer my own question with a resounding “Yes!”
Am I crazy? Perhaps. But hear me out first and then I’d love to get comments from fellow authors on this subject. And readers, too, since we write for you, after all. I’ve just spent the past year and a half living with the fictional characters in my massive, 721,440 word Children of the Knight trilogy, after having spent twenty years on and off (due to that pesky thorn in the side called work) developing the series. The first volume, Children of the Knight, is available from Amazon and the other usual suspects. Part II, Running Through a Dark Place, comes out in May or June, with the finale, And the Children Shall Lead, slated for fall. This story is one long book broken into three parts to make it less daunting (and less expensive to publish and buy – Ha!), so to say I’ve lived with these characters 24/7 is an understatement. And yes, as difficult as it may be for people to comprehend, those characters lived and breathed and directed their own dialogue and their own actions. I, as the author, merely wrote what they wanted me to write.
I know, crazy. Except it’s true. As the author, I very much created the plot and laid out the storyline and decided who my characters would be, both main and supporting. I knew how the trilogy would end before I even finished the first part. Did I know every single scene ahead of time? Of course not, though I did have an outline of the entire epic to work from. But here’s the rub – once I selected my characters and got to know those characters and then set them loose within my chosen plot, well, they just took over.
This series has a huge cast of characters to juggle. Most are teens or children, but there are also many adults of varying ages and from different walks of life. The teens are all unique, each with his or her own back-story and life experience. Thus, they don’t talk or act the same. I really hate any YA literature these days wherein the children (especially middle school age kids) talk and act like adults. It’s not only preposterous, but it perpetuates the notion that kids can think like adults, and that idiotic notion has slipped big-time into our so-called justice system, resulting in some states putting children as young as seven into adult court if those children commit a crime. Kids can mimic adults, yes, but they do not have the fully formed brains and rational thinking capacity of adults, and an author needs to keep that biological fact in mind when writing. But I digress. Sorry.
Anyway, once I got to know my characters, I pretty much let them run the show. I’d be at the gym on a treadmill or using the elliptical machine, and thinking of the next scene or scenes I was going to write when I got home. I’d picture in my mind what had to happen in the scene and which characters would be involved, then simply let it play out. And damn if it didn’t unspool in my mind like a movie! Not ever did I consciously compose a single line of dialogue. The kids talked and responded as they would have had the situation been real life, and all I had to do was either write it down at the gym or keep playing the scene back in my mind until I got home and then transcribe it. But the bottom line is, I let them tell me what they wanted to say. That’s not to suggest I didn’t change up some of the phrasing later on, but the essentials of what they said remained intact.
Readers ask how I came up with Lance’s little catch phrase, “Damn straight,” and I don’t have an answer. Or Reyna saying she couldn’t take orders from a boy younger and prettier than her, and then reusing that line to jibe Lance from time to time thereafter. Or Lance calling six-year-old Chris “little man” and everyone else gradually following suit. Or why Jenny tells Arthur, “That’s the great failure of our society–too many adults who want to act like children and too many who expect children to act like adults.” The list is endless and the only answer I can give is that those characters wanted to say those things that way at that moment, and so I let them.
Even while sitting at the computer, I’d type out a scene and let characters have their way with each other and respond to the circumstances in which they found themselves, then I’d go back later to reread what I had written and wonder where it all came from. Often, these scenes played out perfectly, the dialogue completely organic and exactly how Lance or Reyna or Arthur or Jack or Mark or Esteban or Jenny or Chris would have responded. It was definitely Stephen King-esque. Then, after concluding each book, I’d go back to revise, and more often than not laugh or feel choked up with emotion at what a character said or did, knowing that I’d written the scene, but never quite understanding how it came off so seamlessly, or why I couldn’t even remember actually composing it. Okay, I’m weird, but I’ve known that forever. Maybe that’s why I’m a writer. Ha!
What I also found interesting was what happened when I tried to get a character to do or say something he or she clearly didn’t want to do (in other words, would not do in real life.) Those scenes felt empty and wrong, though I didn’t always understand why at first. In Children of the Knight, there’s a scene I can’t describe because it would be a spoiler, but my main character, Lance, kept telling me he wanted to do something in the scene, and I kept resisting. In the first few drafts I fought to have it my way because I worried how readers might react to the scene. But Lance is nothing if not determined. Growing up on the streets had made him so. He kept insisting I let him do what he wanted, so I finally relented. The scene now feels very natural, real, and quite touching, and thus far no readers or reviewers have objected. See – the character always knows best.
In saying all of this, I don’t always see this same attention to character continuity and reality in books I read, even from bestselling authors. A character in these books will suddenly act out or make a decision completely counter to who he or she is, apparently to further the plot, and those anomalous behaviors always jump off the page at me and pull me right out of the story. At that point, the author has partially lost my allegiance. In most books, the plot, or storyline, if you prefer, must dictate the flow and pacing, but it should never force a character to act counter to himself or herself for the sake of a plot twist, or more commonly, a plot contrivance. Characters are supposed to evolve and change over time, depending on what events befall them, but those changes should be gradual and come across as organic and believable or the reality of the human being is lost. That’s my whole point. I could give specific examples from bestselling books, but I don’t want to dis a fellow author or the book editor, though it seems to me a good editor should have pointed out such an egregious faux pas to the writer and politely insist it be corrected. Oh well, the books are hits so what do I know, right?
If you’re a new writer you may be asking yourself, how do I get to know my characters? Well, how do we get to know anyone – by listening. Many writers start with Fan Fiction on the Internet, writing stories using characters they already know from some TV show or other. As a teen I often did that myself, though there was no Internet to post them on back in the day. Ha! But I knew those characters from watching them and, more importantly, listening to how they talked and interacted with others. The same principle holds true for characters of your own creation.
Of course, it’s important to have at least a basic outline for each of your characters, but you don’t need to know every aspect of his or her life up to the point of your story unless those aspects are relevant to your story. As with all of us, our past experiences – good and bad – inform our choices in the present and often dictate how we respond to certain people, events, or locations. Those are the details you need to think out ahead of time because they will determine how your character interacts with others in your book. Once you have these back stories in your head, including the level of education a character may or may not have had, then their manner of speech, as well as what they say or don’t say, becomes clearer to you with each passing scene. Run scenes in your head as I do, put your characters in place, and then just listen to how they talk, and note how they react to the given situation. Yeah, I guess writing is sort of like having a multiple personality disorder, but in a controlled way. You can’t allow yourself to become Stephen King’s alter ego in his book and have your main character possess you. But if you did, would that be called “method writing?” But I digress again. In any case, “method writing” is not recommended if your main character is a serial killer. Ha! But always listen to your characters, and more importantly, learn from them.
I personally spend an inordinate amount of time revising my books, especially the really long ones, because I want that character consistency and plot continuity that I’ve relished in books I love. I want everything I set up to pay off satisfactorily for the reader, even if that pay off comes in the second or third book, and the worst comment I feel I could ever receive would be that one of my characters acted in a way I never set up (or should I say, the character never set up.) Thankfully, I’ve not gotten such a comment yet, and hopefully never will. While readers might not be conscious of characters bending to suit the plot, it’s my gut feeling that the books they cherish don’t do this. We can get so caught up in plot that we overlook character inconsistencies, but when all the dots are connected and all the strands woven together seamlessly, a story will live in our hearts forever.
This quote from one reviewer on Goodreads helped solidify in my mind all the time I spend making sure each character runs his own show: “The very large supporting cast is quite uniquely developed. Everyone is developed uniquely to suit their role within the novel, without throwing in irrelevant details to bog down the reader. Also, their dialogue and dialects stay consistent throughout. Bowler never trips up on who speaks which way. It made it quite easy to differentiate between characters.” That’s such a fantastic validation, and encourages me to keep taking my time in getting the characters right.
So, any comments out there? Agree? Disagree? Feel free to weigh in, especially you writers out there. Some of you write ten books a year. Wish I could do that, but I’m too detail oriented and OCD when it comes to this issue of character and story continuity. I know I’ll never win any writing awards for poetic descriptions or flowery prose, but at least I strive to make my characters live and breathe and be at all times 100% real to the reader. To that end, I trust my characters to know themselves. I don’t argue with them any more. Lance taught me that. I let them be, and they don’t let me down.
Sir Lance, who is the main character in my Children of the Knight series, wanted the entire story to be from his point of view. But was that possible? As the author telling his story, I had to make the best decision for my readers, and that’s always an interesting decision for writers to make – which will work better, first person narrator or third? My answer to that is: depends on the story. For personal stories like romances or reflections back to childhood or struggles with a deeply emotional personal dilemma, I always prefer first person because of the intimacy factor. You, the reader, feel part of the person’s heart and soul and it’s easier for the writer to share the emotions the situation requires, especially feelings of love and longing or even wistfulness and nostalgia.
Having said that, I don’t like first person narration in horror, action, adventure, or even mystery books for this main reason: you. the reader, know right up front that no matter what danger may befall the main character, he or she won’t die. That eliminates such an important layer of suspense that it can practically derail what would normally be a good story.
Case in point: The Hunger Games Trilogy. Gee, Katniss is the narrator and it’s in the first person voice. You think maybe she might survive the games? I wonder . . . That choice by the author nearly ruined those books for me because the story was much bigger than Katniss alone and when we the readers only saw what she saw, that was limiting. The movie version was able to open up the entire world and let us see into areas – like how the games were run – that Katniss (and by extension us) never could see or experience. Plus, especially with the first book, there’s no suspense in the game because you know she can’t die. In my opinion as a reader, that was a poor choice by the author.
Children of the Knight is written in the third person because there are so many characters and locations that a single narrator could not have covered everything in any way that wouldn’t have seemed forced and idiotic. In addition, characters dying can be traumatic and very emotional for readers and I want that option in my books so readers can rightly fear for the life of a beloved main character. That, to me, is what makes a book great, when the author shocks the readers with something completely unexpected. Sure, it can happen in first person narrated stories, but never to the narrator, at least nothing shockingly fatal.
Another disadvantage to first person is that it’s hard to hide anything about your narrator from the reader since we’re constantly inside that person’s head. I find it intriguing to learn bits and pieces about characters as a story progresses, and that includes the main character. To service the story, you may not want the reader to know until a certain point that your main character loves someone else or is plotting something against someone, but if you’re inside the character’s mind the whole time it’s tough to hide anything like that from the reader.
Since I’m not likely to write a memoir or romance that’s simply a romance and not a story with a romantic element, I’m not likely to use first person narration in any projects I currently have lined up. That’s not to say I might not dip into it in the future, but it all depends on how best to serve the story and make it work for the reader.
Sir Lance says I should talk about cover art (mostly because he’s featured on the cover of my book. LOL) But he does know me too well, and one of my favorite aspects of books is the cover art, and I don’t think I’m alone amongst avid readers in that regard. This is one of my primary reasons for not buying a standard black and white e-book reader – the covers look horrible. Oh I know, I sound like one of the high school kids I used to teach when they had to watch a black and white movie, but in the case of book covers, I’m sorry, it’s true. Those e-readers just don’t cut it.
I have often bought books I never end up reading because I love the cover art so much. I’ll just set the book out on the shelf, cover facing out, and admire the artistry of the cover the way others admire paintings. Okay, I’m weird. But I love book covers! Firstly, a cover can make or break a book because it’s the first thing that catches, or doesn’t catch, the eye of a potential reader. I’ve seen book covers that are absolutely terrible, but the book turns out to be great. I’m different from most likely readers, however, because I might explore a book further, especially if the description peaks my interest. Most people, though, gravitate to “cool” covers.
A cover artist I recently discovered is Zachary Sexton, an Australian who creates some amazing gothic imagery, dark and somewhat out there, but stunningly rendered. I bought a book featuring his cover art (and I might actually read it, though it isn’t really my type of book), but I bought the book solely on the basis of his incredible cover (as I said before, I’m weird that way. Ha!) I checked his website, and his paintings, like this particular cover, look like photographs, lush and detailed, and often quite edgy. Some of it was too edgy for me (ha!), but if I ever have a book I think he’d be right for, I’d hire him in a second. My point is, his cover for that book I bought drew me to a book I otherwise wouldn’t have considered buying, and ideally that’s what cover art should do.
I designed the covers of my first two books myself because they were self-published and I didn’t want a “stock” cover. Those are absolutely egregious! Knowing the importance of cover art, I tried to put significant elements of my stories right there on the covers, some of which wouldn’t make any real sense until after the book was read but might hopefully make potential readers curious enough to at least read the back blurb.
For Children of the Knight, I had created my own “spec” cover art in case I ended up self-publishing, but when Harmony Ink Press bought the manuscript for publication I stressed a little over what they might put on my cover. I needn’t have worried. An amazing cover artist named Reese Dante was assigned to my book and she was fantastic to work with. I wholeheartedly recommend her to any of you authors out there looking for a free-lance cover artist. She asked for my ideas and shared with me her own. When she needed a boy for the front cover, I convinced her to use the one I had already found for my spec because he so perfectly fit my main character. She even used the same sword I had (which I own) in essentially the same position, and created a whole new background that was striking and original and eye-catching. Even the title font she used was perfect. I’ve already seen comments on Goodreads and other sites that people love her finished cover. I couldn’t agree more. If it weren’t already my own book I’d have bought it for the cover alone. Ha!
Since the book involves King Arthur in modern-day Los Angeles recruiting street kids and gang members for a new Round Table of knights to take on the adult society that rejected them, the sword represents Excalibur. The boy is my main character, Lance, a homeless teen skater who becomes Arthur’s First Knight. There’s gang graffiti on the wall behind Lance and Arthur’s “A” symbol spray-painted over it. All of these elements are intriguing and are explained as the story unfolds. Even the boy’s position, with his feet pulled up and arms wrapped around them protectively, indicates the nature of Lance’s character as the story begins – wary, a loner, detached from others, anxious, and closed off emotionally from others.
Every element is perfect and just looking at the cover completely sets the stage for what is to come within the storyline, and that, to me, is what a great book cover should do. It should catch the eye and intrigue the mind and, hopefully, inspire the potential reader to take a leap of faith and dive into the book with interest and expectation. The worst thing a book cover can do is set up expectations not realized within the story or not even relate to the story at all. I’ve seen this happen on occasion and it irks me to no end.
So any of you potential authors out there, never neglect cover art in the process, especially if you are self-publishing. If you have to, take pictures of your own and use Photoshop or pay a friend to meld the pictures together as you want. Or hire Reese Dante – you won’t be disappointed! Steer clear of stock covers on these self-publishing sites unless the photo truly represents your story in a visual way. Remember, a book cover is the doorway to your story. If the door is unappealing, people won’t even open it, and all the hard work you put into crafting your story will be for naught.
Self-publishing or traditional publisher – which is better for you? That’s a question I’ve been asked and have asked myself, and since I’ve done both Sir Lance insisted that I share my experiences. My first two books, A Boy and His Dragon and A Matter of Time, were self-published, but by different companies. My latest book, Children of the Knight, which stars Sir Lance, himself, was picked up and released by a “real” publisher, Harmony Ink Press.
With A Boy and His Dragon, which I had initially written years ago and which failed to interest a “real” publisher, I decided to go with Amazon’s Createspace to finally release it in 2011. Createspace is relatively inexpensive to use, especially if, like me, you can create your own cover art. That in itself can run you some money unless you take all the photos yourself, but if you do and own those photos, programs like Photoshop make creating the cover fun and easy. If not, there are tons of stock photos sites you can go to for images. Createspace will give you the template for your cover that will fit your eventual book size (if you want a paperback release.) Obviously, eBooks are much simpler to format. Again, Createspace makes that process rather painless.
My main problem with formatting Dragon was Microsoft Word, which always seems to have a mind of its own (and the mind of a psychopath, at that. Ha!) Createspace gave me a template to download for my book size that would double-side the pages, etc, and all I had to do was cut and paste my Word document into that template. Except, it didn’t work. Word would change fonts and font sizes all through the entire book and I eventually had to copy-paste the manuscript one chapter at a time and check over each chapter for Word changes that I didn’t want. Very annoying and time consuming. However, once I had it right the finished product looked beautiful and very professional. Being an Amazon company, the book was made available in Kindle format, but not Nook (if that is of concern to anyone.) The paperback version is available on the Barnes and Noble website, however.
I decided for A Matter of Time (which I wanted released by April of 2012 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s sinking) to go with a “package deal” from Outskirts press, which I’d read about and which seemed good for a number of reasons. As I was working a lot and didn’t have as much available free time, this option fit my schedule because they pretty much did everything for me. I designed my own cover and uploaded it, but they formatted the book and got everything set and converted it to epub and mobi formats and prepared the paperback from the bottom up.
I didn’t notice at the time, however, that, I suppose as a way to compress the number of pages, they removed all my transitions and ran those paragraphs together, which some readers complained about because it made the flow of the story confusing, especially if the scene shifted from one time period to another. I recommend to every writer, no matter how you publish, to put several non-letters or characters (like ***) in between important transitions – don’t just leave extra space. Otherwise, you might find yours all run together, too. Overall, however, the finished product looked good. What wasn’t good were their marketing services (which cost extra, of course.) I wouldn’t recommend any of these because you’d likely get more results doing all the marketing yourself and you can save money in the process.
My newest book, Children of the Knight, was released by a real YA publisher, Harmony Ink Press, and the pre-publication process was an amazingly positive and joyful experience. These people were fantastic and creative and incredibly helpful all along the way, from the executive director to the art department to the cover artist to the editors and I can’t say enough good things about the company or the people who produced the book. I happened to find them through another writer on Goodreads. I read his book and thought it outstanding. I reviewed the book and then he and I got to chatting on Goodreads about his experience with Harmony Ink. He said they were amazing to work with so I checked out their requirements for YA submissions and my manuscript seemed to fit those requirements, so I submitted it. While my book was clearly different from what Harmony Ink normally published, they decided to take a chance on it anyway, for which I am grateful.
You can make more money self-publishing because all the royalties come back to you since there is no “publisher” that needs to make its money back. In that regard, Createspace is the cheapest way to go for you as an author as you lay out the least amount of money up front. The value of a real publisher, at least in the case of Harmony Ink, is not only did I not spend any of my own money but they actually paid me an advance! Sure, I get no royalties until the amount of the advance has been exceeded, but it’s still cool to know that someone thinks your work is good enough to pay you money (which means they have confidence it will earn them money.) Again, the people at Harmony Ink were so amazing and affirming I may be spoiled to find other publishers aren’t like them. Still, there are some smaller publishing houses like this one that will read books not submitted by an agent, so I recommend checking them out.
So here’s the bottom line, even with Harmony Ink: most of the promotion is up to you. A real publisher like Harmony Ink has more access to media outlets and can have your name on a list of “new books,” but I’ve found that unless your book is noted for being controversial or you’re an author readers or other authors already know, yours is just another title for review sites to ignore. And your book is considered a failure if the publisher cannot generate any interest in your book pre-publication. E-book copies or even galleys, are made available to reviewers three-four weeks prior to publication so there can be reviews right on “opening day.” But, of course, a publisher cannot force any site to review your book. It’s strictly up to the reviewers who populate those sites. However, and this is key, the pre-release buzz from those reviewers snapping up the offered e-books will likely determine if the publisher will promote your book at all once it’s released, or just dump it out there and move on to the next book, and author.
Despite Harmony Ink having a long list of review sites that, as a rule, love their books and generally post a large number of reviews right when the books comes out or shortly thereafter, Children of the Knight generated no such interest. I think I got maybe three reviews from those sites shortly after the book debuted. Obviously, my story didn’t interest them enough to even give the book a chance. As I said, it’s different and I guess among reviewers who are set in their ways, “different” isn’t good. Oddly enough, the storyline involves kids who are “different,” whom society disdains and who are not given a chance to prove themselves worthy, and here we have reviewers not giving the book, or its author, a chance, either. Life imitates art. Very ironic.
So, on all three of these books, it’s been me generating most of the reviews and pushing the books on Facebook, Twitter, by email and on Goodreads. Goodreads, which put me onto Harmony Ink, is a great place to interact with other authors and most of us are willing to let our brains be picked for insights or experience. However, even offering free books in exchange for a fair review might generate no interest whatsoever.
There are subgroups for virtually every genre and subgenre out there, and you can promote your work there, but I haven’t seen tangible results yet from Goodreads. I’ve gotten a tiny handful of people interested in my books, even the last one, despite my targeting the “right” groups that should embrace the story. Also, a lot of people may add your book to their “wants to read” shelf, but never actually buy it. As I said, offering free copies in exchange for reviews could be a good way to get reviews, and here’s hoping you have better luck in that arena than I. Subgroups who love everything Harmony Ink publishes haven’t been too responsive to reading my book, even when I offered it for free. Having said that, the reviews it has gotten have all been excellent, mostly four and five stars. But again, I had to do all the legwork to get those reviews and you might have to, also.
There are Virtual Book Tours available from various online companies and they can help you with blog stops and interviews and even reviews, and I’ve done a few of these for Children of the Knight. I haven’t yet seen tangible results from those efforts, either, but time will tell. Let’s face it, I just suck at self-promotion. Get good at that and you’ll be the next Stephen King.
Well, that’s it. My publishing journey so far. If you’d prefer a “real” publisher and don’t mind smaller royalties, see if your specific book meets the submission requirements for small publishing houses that don’t expect you to pay anything. If you want complete control and all the returns, I’d say go with Createspace and avoid the vanity publishers – they may cost you more than you’ll ever get back.