29 January 2012

New Book Cover...to be or not to be?

Once upon a time there was a book called AFTER ILIUM that was not too happy sitting on a shelf, waiting to be discovered. That was common in those days of the late 1990s. Yes, it was the best of times and the worst of times. Books were paper and sat on shelves. To get to an agent or editor they went out in boxes. Then, in summer 2011, the novella known as AFTER ILIUM was crafted into a full novel and offered for sacrifice to the Fates.

That was history--ancient history, ironically. Then came electronic books, a brave new contest and a reading revolution, and inevitably a book cover. I took a deep breath and dove into the Photoshop ocean and tried to swim. I could dog-paddle well enough, but I longed to win Olympic gold. That was not to be. Others assisted me in my cover creations and all was calm. Then a storm whipped up on the horizon, a tempest in a teapot, and blew my book cover away.

So once again, I pulled out my trusty Photoshop and set to work teaching myself everything all over again. The result is that in less than 19 hours I have made a new cover for my novel, AFTER ILIUM. What do you think? It may be bright enough, but does it grab your attention? Especially in a thumbnail form? This is the test for it before I send it out of the nest to fly on its own....


Fantasy Island Book Publishing's own staff artist Ceri Clark created the newest cover, which shall grace  all ebooks and print books from here on out.


Even newer covers made! In response to feedback, I have reduced the "red eye" effect, give Paris some shadow, and popped the title text. This time it only took 2 hours because I still remember how   to do it from a couple days ago. It is better now? (Compare to the previous "new" cover below.)

The old new covers:

front cover

front and back covers
So what do you think? Would you click on this pic? Would you turn it over to read the blurb? Would you buy it after reading the blurb? Would you be scared away by the author's portrait? 

Thanks in advance for your comments.

Here is my Amazon.com author page with links for ebook and print editions of After Ilium.

(C) Copyright 2010-2011 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

23 January 2012

It's ABNA season!

With the start of a new year the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards is once again open! 

Among my writer colleagues, impressions of this event seems to be equally divided between enthusiastic and wary. I tend to fall in the middle, as usual. I see the good and the bad. First, a little history, then a major plug for my indulgences....

After a hospital stay which had me worried about the future, I decided to shift into higher gear with regard to my writing, the only thing that really mattered to me. The first thing that came up was ABNA. I thought it might be a good test of my "best" novel, A BEAUTIFUL CHILL. At least I could claim to have something "out there" in some form. Meanwhile, I learned a lot from discussions with fellow writers. I got a query together and began sending them out. As I said, at least I was doing something.

Previously, I had revised my novels to within an inch of their lives, then set them comfortably on the shelves inside my computer. Too busy with other matters, I longed for the day I'd dust them off and hand them over to an agent or a publisher who would shower me with the praise and money from all my dear readers. Dreams tend to wait patiently, I've learned, especially if you don't call them forth to do something.

In the 2011 competition I was, as they say, pitched at the "pitch" stage. I think we all agree it's rather difficult to condense the essence of a 100,000 word novel into 300 words. Hook the reader rather than tell the whole story seemed to be the consensus of advice. Others thought we had to hint at the direction of the story. Others still complained that the instructions for writing the pitch led many to write something that would not be effective.

That led to my excerpt being dismissed. Since then, I have further revised the first chapter until it was so thick with blubber that it needed to be taken to a meat slicer. But amazing things did happen. I didn't win anything but I got noticed. And in that moment of time, that was quite enough.

I submitted my ABNA entry to an independent publisher and it is now on its way to being published (A BEAUTIFUL CHILL). I also was able to submit another novel to a publisher who noticed my writing through ABNA, and it is now "out there" for mass consumption (AFTER ILIUM). (Shameless plug: Available now at Amazon.com in ebook and paperback editions!)

So I'd chalk it up as an overall good thing. Some of my colleagues had less pleasant experiences. On the discussion boards where writers in general but particularly ABNA participants asked questions and received answers, shared writing samples and various links, and critiqued each others' work, it seemed at times to become a battlefield full of conflict. Noses were bloodied and backs were stabbed! I twisted an ankle.

Having sat through a few writing workshops over the years, I know how easy it is for personalities to clash and how different interpretations of a text can cause people to come to blows. I was not too involved in that side of ABNA; however, as a result of being supportive of some of the people there, I was also attacked. Attack, in this case, means an especially hateful critique was posted about my novel excerpt, more general vitriol than substantive criticism. The fighting went on.

I was out of the competition anyway, was now working with two independent publishers, and so I gradually faded from the discussion boards. Until now....

Once again, like spring following winter, the ABNA has returned! With two novels spoken for already, and another "on order," I had to choose something new for my entry. My remaining crown jewel, however, is a science-fiction novel: THE DREAM LAND (click to read ABNA excerpt).

Sci-fi never gets far at ABNA, apparently. There has been much discussion of genre bias, though much may depend on the personal tastes of the judges along the way. If any sci-fi work was to succeed, I considered, it would be mine. Why? Because my sci-fi tome is about as minimally sci-fi as any sci-fi novel could be. Indeed, it is overall a relationship story. It just happens to be set half the time on another planet, reached through an interdimensional doorway. Once there, my characters engage in the usual business of life: loving, fighting, traveling, eating and drinking, more loving and fighting, learning alien languages and adapting to alien customs. Like I said, the usual.

THE DREAM LAND must be classified for ABNA purposes as sci-fi because it does involve interdimensional traveling, but it also has significant elements of contemporary hard-luck stories of working class people trying to get by in government jobs, a police case involving the search for a serial killer, a reluctant psychiatrist trying to help a recent widower regain his connection with society. And, on the other side, we have two high school sweethearts who discover an invisible doorway through which to enter a strange new world. What follows are their sordid adventures, repeatedly returning to Earth and back to the world of Ghoupallesz, where they eventually become a famous warrior and his queen, both with families and responsibilities. Then, as all good stories must, there are twists, and twists upon twists which bring everything together in a stunning climax meant to blow readers' minds!

Wow, that should have been my pitch! I can't complain. It won't win. Probably the judges will never see it. I could be pitched at the pitch stage again, or I could go on living another few weeks as the 5000 word excerpt is scrutinized. Beyond that is the uncharted territory of the full manuscript, quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals. By then, of course, we will all be staring at the summer. By then, many of us will have started our next projects. Or we will be revising the one we tried at ABNA. (See a sample of THE DREAM LAND.) By then, ABNA 2012 will be forgotten and few will be thinking ahead to 2013.

It is a valuable learning experience, no matter the outcome. Even hard lessons are valuable. My skin is a couple layers thicker now, thanks to that experience. And my writing has improved. Or, perhaps, it is my revision skills that are better now. Either way, I give two thumbs up to ABNA and encourage anyone who has a novel length work to give it a try. I did, and I'm doing it again.

So...good luck to everyone! 
But better luck to me!

p.s., Reading The Dream Land will greatly benefit those who may wish to understand everything about the Sekuatean Empire.
(C) Copyright 2010-2011 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

16 January 2012

Dealing with the "Mom" Review

It was not actually supposed to happen. Not in this lifetime, anyway.

My mother read my book!

Freshly out in the marketplace, my novel AFTER ILIUM (Fantasy Island Book Publishing, 2011) was always intended for an audience of everyone older than 16 and not my parents.

I'm no prude, but my novels deal with realistic, believable situations (yes, sci-fi included!) where characters act in rational or believably irrational ways when dealing with the situations in which they find themselves. That does mean sex and violence happen.

That does not mean "They kissed and the next morning he got out of bed and left her." Or "He threw a punch and missed."

Rather than go full porno ("erotica" to those gentler souls), I had the sex scenes told through the Point of View of the naive young man who experiences it. Needless to say, Alex has a romanticized lens through which to have his first experience with a woman, the older and exotic Elena, who he meets on the way to the ruins of ancient Ilium.

And the story features brutality on both sides: fighting, maiming, killing, and a sexual assault. People are hurt, some die, some survive but in a lesser form. What I attempted to conjure was hardcore reality--yet what would be believable for the characters and situations presented. Fortunately, our hero is not party to such violence--until later, that is, when he thinks he's killed someone.

Given this kind of story (young man meets older woman, has affair, gets into trouble, struggles to make his way back), I advised my parents that it was not suitable fare for them.

As former teachers, my father is an avid reader of history, politics, biography while my mother reads romance and Christian how-to books. I thought I was in the clear because my book was not among their usual genres. (My father, once upon a time when I was a young writer, stated firmly that he did not read fiction because it was not true; why read something that's fake?) I cautioned my mother that she would not be well-served by pushing my novel to her church friends. She should simply be happy for me for finally getting one of my "hobbies" published. I thought that was the end of it.

But no! Through the wonders of technology, a neighbor of my parents (who are deep into retirement) had a Kindle. They downloaded my ebook. Then the unthinkable happened: they lent the Kindle (with enovel on board) to my mother! Less than 24 hours later I received a phone call. It was time for The Mom Review.

I prepared for a grilling, as though I were still 9 or so and had been caught being mischievous. Actually, I had been mischievous--in my writing.

Rather than a verbal assault for the inappropriate content I'd written, my mother began with a list of items she thought needed to be fixed. No typos, thanks to my intense proofreading, but a few curious sentence constructions nevertheless. She pointed out grammar errors in the speeches of the Greek woman who is speaking English imperfectly. She questioned whether or not my use of Turkish phrases were correct. She asked about particular plot points, not understanding some of them. She compared the Iliad she had learned in school long ago (not as far back as Homer, however) with my version, as though there were more than one. I dared quote chapter and verse to back up my case.

And then came...the delicate parts!

In the scene where young Alex Parris is making love with the seductive Elena for the first time, the word "sailing" does indeed set up a metaphorical description of what happens. No body parts are mentioned. Everything is couched in nautical terms, to whit: She guided him on a tour of her body, and he was willing to explore each port of entry, languishing there until she called him to continue sailing her fragrant seas. You get the idea. I quickly deflected further discussion of the scene and allowed my mother to move on to her next area of concern.

We've become accustomed to violence, more so than sex, it seems. ("I don't mind blowing men's heads off in a war movie but I'll not sit still for bare tits on the screen!" I've heard before.) So there were few objections to the fight scenes. I was afraid she'd ask something about the sexual assault, but she passed it by. Too awkward, perhaps. Instead, she wanted to know the fate of Benson, the victim of the assault. I directed her to the page where that information could be found. [Nope, you ain't getting a spoiler here.]

Once through her list of concerns, I got the final assessment. Try to hear her voice in the way I've written it: "It was...um, g-good." I wondered at that moment how many stars I'd be getting. And then, leaving me in dismay, she added: "I think it's all right for [her church friends]." I suppose that's some kind of assessment, right? Kind of a "not as bad as I expected" review. Thanks, Mom! 

Dare she pass it on to my father now? If she does, there goes my inheritance. I wonder how to explain to any family member why I would write such sick, twisted scenes in my novels. What kind of person am I? They would no doubt be thinking: "Did we ever really know Stephen?"

How have my fellow writers dealt with their own "Mom" and "Dad" reviews? 

[I should point out--because they'll never read my blog!--that poor Alex's parents are modeled after my own, but, ironically, my mother only asked if Alex's father was supposed to be my father. She never asked about Alex's too doting mother. Hmmm. We write what we know....]

(C) Copyright 2010-2011 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

10 January 2012

Am I a Masochist? Entering ABNA 2012

It is that time of year once more, the season of the contest! The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards!

I did it last year, on a whim. My book, a literary novel about a doomed relationship (A Beautiful Chill), did not get very far at all in the process. Nevertheless, the contest proved beneficial. Through associations I made I was able to get that book in the hands of a publisher and the book will be available later this year. I also was able to offer another novel (After Ilium) to a different publisher I met through contest participation. After Ilium is now available for purchase in ebook and print formats.

Although I may not show it by jumping up and down in the bookstore aisles (not yet, anyway) or putting my editors in my will, I am pleased with the way things are moving along.

Now it comes again: the Contest. 

I have nothing else to offer that has not already been spoken for in other venues...except one.

Based on last year's rough, cutthroat, backstabbing, heartshredding experience (somewhat for me and distinctly more for some of my colleagues), I know some of us do not relish the idea of diving back into those shark-infested waters, to use a dumb cliche. Some of us don't mind, of course, because we are, by nature, masochists.

Is it oxymoronic to use the words 'writer' and 'masochist' together? Perhaps. Especially in instances where a writer offers up his or her "baby" to the judgment of strangers. Yes, I am speaking of competitions and contests, typically of the sort where hopeful wordsmiths submit their manuscripts to the scrutiny of others. We work hard on a story, crafting it in ways that we believe render it effective and entertaining. That's what we believe, anyway. To be sure of it, we share it. But the process is a little strange.

Imagine if we took our child and treated him or her the way we treat our books? I've worked on this child for several years. We've changed hairstyles, fashions, interests and abilities, but it still has basically the same plot. And we did move from one setting to another, which may have some influence on the latter years. Still waiting to see what happens. So...what do you think? Good? Do you want more? Oh, I can dress him like a girl, if that's what you want. I can also make her talk like a grumpy old man. I can change anything, just please, love my child!

Fortunately, the book baby is a bit easier to deal with. I can take plenty of criticism about myself, my behavior, my quirks, my misanthropic tendencies (in writing, that is), but darned if I'll sit back and let people who don't know me and have no vested interest in what I do or do not do paste their judgments for all to see! Then again, that is part of the process. This is what we expect:

I made this book (that much is obvious). I worked hard on it (perhaps in futility; length of effort does not always correlate with improvement). I like how it turned out (which can possibly be confused with simply being glad that the thing's done). Now I want to know what you think of it (which in many cases seems to be an invitation to shower praise). --Really? That's what you think of my book?

And we swiftly unfriend. And start a new book. Because we are masochists. Because we are writers. Because masochist and writer are synonymous.

So, on that happy, uplifting conclusion, let me announce that for this year's Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, I will offer up for sacrifice the first volume of my sci-fi trilogy The Dream Land. One slant that I shall cleverly take is to label the novel a psychological thriller rather than a work of science-fiction.

The story, you will see if you check here, is about an ordinary guy who quite likely is venturing through an interdimensional portal to another world where he is a lover and a fighter. Or he may be dreaming it all. This matters to folks back home because some people have gone missing and he is the last to see them. Did he accidentaly leave them on the "other side", or have they been conveniently murdered? Ah hah! you might be thinking. I get it! Psycho thrilla masquerading as sci-fi!

In case you are not convinced of my ultimate Winnerness, please consider this cute girl (click her to receive a happy thought)!

Good luck to everyone entering ABNA 2012... but better luck to me!

(C) Copyright 2010-2012 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

03 January 2012

There Will Be Blog!

Good Morning and Happy New Year! 
The world did not end! No, wait. That's this year. Never mind.

Many New Year's Resolutions are being broken, here on the third day of the year. But fear not, I am blogging. That is the least of my troubles. You see, as seems to always be the case, trouble follows me like a forlorn, starving puppy. This tends to happen most when I am away from what constitutes my normal environs, i.e., work, the day job, my position as a teacher of writing at a local university. It's a bittersweet effort, like most things in life. When it's good, it's very good, and when it's bad...well, let's not talk about that. We are still on winter break, thankfully or not, so I have some time left to fall into mischief.

Perhaps enough said on mischief, the better. Right? And yet, speaking of mischief...

Please read the preceding blog entry and click appropriately to quickly receive a copy of my new novel AFTER ILIUM, a modern retelling of Homer's infamous epic of the Trojan War and the adventures of Odysseus trying to return home after the war. In my take, a young college graduate named Alex Parris goes to see the site of ancient Ilium (Troy) and gets into trouble.

Not simple mischief as I tend to do, but serious, hardcore, desperate trouble. First, there's the woman: Elena (Greek for "Helen") who is older, mysterious, exotic, voluptuous, you get the picture. Elena and Parris, kind of a coincidence, huh? She lets him fall for her only to send him off on his own odyssey across the wild Turkish coast, trying to return to her. What young Mr. Parris experiences in what quickly becomes a fight for survival will teach him a lot more about life than four years of college ever taught him. He will be a very different person After Ilium.

Today After Ilium goes "live" on Amazon.com, available in ebook and paperback formats.
(Don't be alarmed by the glitchy "preview"; the real book you get is perfect and looks perfect.)

Be careful, however. It will make you horny, then make you cry. That's what readers have told me. Which is good, because that's what I intended. I love it when a plan comes together! (My parents are not allowed to read this book, so you know it's juicy.) Romance/betrayal/adventure/desperation/farmer's daughters and Navy doctors/goat piles and eye patches! Yes, youthful exuberance will get you in trouble every time!