Judging A Book By Cover

I am trying to understand the reasoning behind the popular talk nowadays among indie authors about how to best present our book covers. Most of the how-to info is very complicated, and most of the advice ends with “Let a professional do it.” The idea is to hook the potential reader before they look inside the book.

I’m an old-school reader and buyer of books that began in the 1960s. Many of my purchases back then were paperbacks because they were affordable. Even in the 1970s when I entered the workforce and had a weekly income, I still bought paperbacks. So did my friends. Often, we went book hunting on Saturday afternoons, hitting the malls in search of our next read.

The covers on paperback books (and hardcovers) were simple in design. It was often the title that caught my eye. If it sounded interesting, I would flip the book over and read the back cover copy. That’s what either prompted me to buy the book or return it to the shelf.

Most online bookstores today have a feature equivalent to the old back cover copy. It’s the short blurb off to the side of the book cover on display. I call it the “What is this book about?” feature. And it’s here where an author either convinces me to buy their book or prompts me to continue browsing.

Beautiful, fancy, exotic book covers and plain, two-tone, neutral ones have never prompted me to buy a book. It has always been the “What’s this book about?” feature.

Look at this Stephen King paperback of The Shining from one of its first runs.

The book’s title attracted me because I asked, “What does the title mean?” The back cover copy gave me a clue and whetted my curiosity. Until then, I had never read a book by King. Neither had my friends. I ended up liking the story so much, I bought his two prior releases, ’Salem’s Lot and Carrie, on a gamble that I would like them too. I did. So did a million other readers.

Compared to today’s indie writing market, if King was an unknown author selling his books at Amazon, and he used the above cover, would you buy it?

Look at the replacement cover of The Shining a few years later during the movie release.

Would you still want to buy it?

I don’t think it’s wise to worry about eye-catching book cover design. I think we should continue to strive at writing as well as we can and to write a compelling “What’s this book about?” feature. If your story is captivating and entertaining, then people will notice, even if you’ve wrapped it in a brown paper bag.

Feeling the Rain

A year ago today, I was rushed into emergency surgery that saved my life from a perforated bowel.

During my weeklong stay at the hospital—first in a recovery room, then in a 24-hour observation room where my nurses kept watch for sepsis, I spent a lot of time alone. Covid restrictions allowed me one visitor, which was my wife who had to travel almost 40 miles to see me. When she and my nurses were not with me, I entertained by visiting the internet via my phone and perusing art and writing sites. One night, I found a long quote—perhaps a poem—by Walt Whitman about his desire to be closer to animals and nature. Being a wildlife artist for many years, I felt akin to that desire. So, with pen and paper, I jotted down a couple lines about animal life that intrigued me.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition, they do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. Not one is unhappy over the whole earth.

The words took me back to the years I studied wildlife. Animal lives seemed so basic, so simple, which led me to practicing a similar simple life. My main purpose then was to care for my children. Although employment stole time from us, it gave me enough income to acquire necessities to keep them healthy and safe.

My children were long grown and raising families of their own when I left the hospital to finish recuperating at home. What had my purpose in life become? To grow old and die?

Beyond making purpose for a corporation by my employment to it, I decided to make purpose for me again. So I retired from the workforce and did a lot of soul searching for what I wanted to do.

I have been an artist—a good artist—most of my life. It brought me awards and recognition beyond my desires. And it brought me to a crossroad where I no longer felt challenged by it. So I spent the winter and most of spring looking at things that challenge me most.

One of my biggest challenges is writing well, mostly because I suffer a form of dyslexia that has hindered me most of my life. When I write well—and by that I mean something that reads coherently and moves my emotions long after I wrote it—the experience is an uplifting one, much like depicted in the illustration above.

I want to feel the rain when I write. And I want to feel it when I read it. That is my newfound purpose in life.

It will talk as long as it wants, the rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen. —Thomas Merton

10-Year Blogging Anniversary

I received notice last week from the good people at WordPress that my blog reached its 10-year mark.

Happy Anniversary, dear blog.

I recall when I began chiseling its foundation in January all those years ago, publishing my first post in February, and getting my first follower. I received many more followers in the next ten months, and I eagerly followed my followers, we commenting back and forth, and I feeling like a new tenant of part of a happy community. Sadly, I no longer hear from those bloggers. Two of the blogs from 2011 are in limbo and haven’t shown activity in several years; the rest of my followers of that year are no longer around.

All the same, it has been a fun ride and I haven’t run out of things to post! Here’s to ten more years.

Nine Years Blogging at WordPress

I received notice earlier this week that I have been blogging at WordPress for 9 years.

This prompted me to reflect on my blog’s look and changes during its near decade of existence.

I didn’t call my blog Art~Writing~Life in 2011, but called it Creating New Worlds. My web address was my full name. The first image below is a short-lived header. I planned to present only my art here.

2011 header 1

I quickly changed my mind about my blog’s purpose so not to limit my options. And I used my full name. The following image was my header for the remainder of 2011.

2011 header 2

The next image was my header from 2012 through 2013. I called my blog my “Official Website” because I was in the midst of publishing my books at Amazon in 2012.

2012 header

My header took on a fantasy look in 2014. And I referred to myself as a literary and visual artist.

2014 header 1

By August 2014, I simplified my header and stopped publishing my books at Amazon.

2014 header 2

I began selling my books at Smashwords, so I changed my blog’s header in 2015 to reflect the books there. My novel Trespassing never made it to print, but the other three are still there … for now.

2015 header

2016 saw two header changes here.

The first change was a simplification that added more white space and less visual “clutter.”

2016 header 1

The second change came in two parts. The first part was to my blog’s name and address, which became ArtWritingLife. The second part was to get all crazy again with graphics in my header. I get like that sometimes.

2016 header 2

In 2017, I put my full name in my header again.

2017 header

From Handprints To Footprints had become my motto here, so I created a different header to show it. Also, I shortened my name to Steve Campbell to reflect my plans to publish books under that name.

2018 header

Finally, my current header reflects my free spirit.

2019 header

Receiving that notice also prompted me to look back at my first post, “A Day in My Life,” published February 20, 2011, at 10:49am. I received 2 Likes, 2 comments, and 2 followers that day. Since then, after acquiring 682 more followers, no one else has Liked or commented on that post, which shows that we all have posts that go unnoticed and unread. Even I forgot about it until I looked back. And I enjoyed reading it again, which has prompted me to share it here.

So, here it is. Perhaps someone new will like it.

A Day in My Life

Words awoke me the other morning, repeating in my mind loudly, obtrusive. At 4:27, I snapped on my lamp and scribbled them down.

Dark cold
Deep blue
Frigid from the death of violet

I wondered, What does it mean, frigid from the death of violet? I tried to remember the dream that had birthed those words, but it had vanished.

I extinguished the light and dozed. More words came to me: Birthed. Birthing. Born anew. They repeated and filled my head, sounding like children clopping in oversized rubber boots around my bed until the clamor became one voice saying Words. Words. Words. You send your words into the streets; they’re attacked and raped there. They give birth to new industries; your old words fall away like fallen soldiers.

Again I awoke. Again I asked, What does it mean?

Nothing revealed. I fell asleep and dreamed dreamlessly until sunlight stirred me back to the living. I took my jottings to my office and put them aside while I worked on some pencil drawings—3 hours of studying shadow and light. After breakfast I put away my art project, picked up one of my stories in progress and wrote some chapters. My main character was in a dark place—dark cold, deep blue; the basement room she was in was painted blue-violet and was frigid from the lack of windows.

Aha! The writing went quickly as words spilled from me. Soon, I had a few more chapters.

By afternoon I left for my other job (the one that pays the bills) and left behind the creative person that I am. There is no place at that salt mine for thinkers, imaginers, visionaries. People like that have been verbally attacked there for being different, and their souls spiritually raped.

Aha! … again.

I returned to my writing for an hour that night and struggled to continue my story; I was empty from the time spent at my other job. I struggled as well with the desire to edit what I had written so far—a bad habit that I am trying to break myself from. A writer should not edit his first draft until the story is completed and he has had time to put the story aside for a few weeks.

I drew instead, happy to be home and filling my emptiness with all that I love.

Halloween III

It rarely happens that I have two days in a row off from work, so I took advantage of it and dusted off some old DVDs to get in the upcoming Halloween spirit. One of the movies I watched was John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s 1978 classic, Halloween, the one with a young Jamie Lee Curtis playing babysitter Laurie Strode, and Donald Pleasence playing Dr. Sam Loomis, Michael Myers’ psychiatrist.

I saw the movie in the theater and loved it. Until then, Psycho was my favorite scary movie, followed by The Birds and Carrie, respectively.

After I watched Halloween, I watched its sequel, 1981’s Halloween II, which, after great consideration, led to watching Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the one without Michael Myers, the one so many of my friends and I disliked when Universal Pictures released it in 1982. They disliked it because it omitted the Michael Myers storyline. I disliked it because of a faulty script. But after all these years, I gave it a second chance and watched it again. And again I felt bad that the movie could not have had better script supervision.

Image courtesy Universal Pictures

This was Carpenter and Hill’s last Halloween movie and it came with a twisted and morbid plot: The owner/CEO of a novelty toy company, Conal Cochran (played by Dan O’Herlihy), wants to kill children all over the United States on Halloween by using witchcraft and computer chips in the Halloween masks the company makes.

Why does Cochran want to kill children? Because it is the ultimate trick he can play on kids.

Why does he hate kids so much? The movie never reveals the answer. If it’s our first viewing, we wonder if the protagonist, Dr. Dan Challis (played by Tom Atkins), will stop this madman and save the kids. Spoiler: We never find out. The movie ends with a cliffhanger.

My biggest problem with the movie is the ticking clock thrown in to add suspense. During the days leading up to Halloween, TV commercials play across the country and tell children to wear their masks during a special commercial, which will air at 9pm on Halloween. That is when Cochran plans to activate the killer masks and his sinister plot. It’s up to Dr. Dan to stop it from happening.

Problem: Dr. Dan is in California and he is racing against a clock—a clock that reads 8pm and later during the movie’s final chapters.

Did no one among the movie’s production crew realize that if it is 8pm in California, then 9pm has already hit the three other time zones in the U.S.?

And that is the main reason why Halloween III is a disappointment for me to watch.

But don’t feel too bad for me. There are plenty of better movies to watch. And you can bet I will view the first Halloween movie again before October ends. And I will enjoy it all over again, even though some of my friends are still disappointed that there are no buckets of blood in it.

Writing Novels

It seems as if every successful author has written a book about how to write novels. One author I read about compared writing novels to performing in a circus, with juggling and balancing acts that will entertain to keep your audience mesmerized. It’s a unique comparison to the many other authors who have compared it to either building a house or baking a cake.

The bottom line is the circus needs the right acts and entertainers to be a hit with its audience. The house needs an established blueprint to be functional and withstand time. And the cake needs a proven recipe to be delicious. They are formulas to success. They are also formulas to repetitiveness. It’s up to us as authors to change these formulas to keep them new and fresh … and hopefully, successful.

Every successful novel begins with a proven formula of plot and characters. They are nothing without each other. Each must entertain us. Plots tell a story, building layers with interesting hooks and twists (subplots). Characters move the story along, often by creating tension—people who oppose each other, and then releasing the tension.

The main character shows us outward action toward an interesting goal and inward action, usually toward some sort of growth and maturity. However, some stories have characters who recede and fall from grace by giving in to life’s pressures. Authors classify the former character as the tool of an affective plot and the latter as one of a disillusionment plot.

Some authors write outlines of their stories before they begin writing their novels. Outlines “tell” the author what happens in the story. Based on that outline, the author writes a story that “shows” the reader what happens.

Almost all novels have four acts. Act One begins with rising action based on Aristotle’s Incline and ends in Act Four with falling action and a resolution. The novel’s climax usually happens at the end of Act Three.

A series is a set of books with each book representing a self-contained story. Each book ends. There is no over-arching story among a series of books.

A serial is a story told in several installments with a cliffhanger at the end of each installment until the books reach an ending. The storyline during a serial connects at the start of the next installment and continues to weave through more installments until reaching an end of the books.

Authors must know the difference between a series and a serial so as not to confuse their readers.

Every writer should read The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.

Finally, time is the most important tool for an author. Some people may argue that inspiration is. Others may say persistence is. But without setting aside time to do it, no novel is ever written.

Walking the Lonely Road [writing]

My blog is often a neglected child crying for attention. I have a tiny window of time to write, proofread, and post new blog posts. My daily life is a rush that keeps the heart pumping and puts a limp in my walk at the end of the day.

Smile. There is always a moment when I can write a few sentences or thumbnail a new drawing or painting. It’s a yin and yang thing that keeps me balanced.

I have pages of incomplete sentences too, in notebooks, on index cards, and even in fancy leather journals. I am a sketcher. I see a light at the end of a tunnel and work my way to it. Sometimes, it takes years to get there. Sometimes, which is often the case, I find another tunnel and branch into a new direction.

Sometimes the tunnel is not a tunnel at all, but a lone highway that starts with no people, houses, or traffic. I take those lonely walks along such highways when I begin writing my stories. But I soon meet an interesting character—sometimes two or more. They join me on the journey, taking me to places and other people, showing me which way to go and telling me how to get there. That’s the fun of writing stories.

But that is internal. Externally, I am by myself, thinking, planning, writing—or thinking, planning, making art. I suppose, that’s the true walk on the lonely road. It’s what writers and artists do.

An artist friend calls her time spent sketching, her social time. It’s time spent with family and friends while she gathers and plays with ideas. But the time she spends while painting is a time for solitary confinement. And she’s right: I cannot write a book, or draw or paint artwork without shutting myself away from the rest of the world.

It’s lonely, yes, but necessary. Because that is where the lightning is—the juice that brings your creation alive. Without it, you’re just walking alone in the dark, going nowhere in particular.

To all my creative friends, I encourage you to walk the lonely road and create something great.

Birthdays and Life

My baby picture. Circa, December 1957.

Today is my birthday. Another year older and closer to death.

Death is a common theme the older I get. But that’s life for all of us.

I was born on Sunday, 62 years ago. My mother said she went into labor while laughing at Jerry Lewis. She and my father were watching Hollywood or Bust at the movie theater. She loved watching Jerry Lewis movies. My dad didn’t like Jerry’s style of humor, but he enjoyed Dean Martin’s singing. It was Dean and Jerry’s last movie together.

So I came into this world around 11:30pm that Sunday, during a typical February snowstorm in northwestern Pennsylvania. I was Mom’s second child and the first to survive childbirth.

In 1957, Dwight Eisenhower was the US president and a postage stamp Cost 3 Cents. Some of the news during the year told us…

  • Congress approved the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction to protect blacks’ voting rights,
  • Hurricane “Audrey” destroyed Cameron, Louisiana killing 390 people,
  • National Guardsmen barred nine black students from entering previously all white Central High School in Little Rock,
  • The Russians launched Sputnik I, the first earth orbiting satellite,
  • The FBI arrested Jimmy Hoffa and charged him with bribery,
  • The Milwaukee Brewers Braves won the World Series,
  • The Detroit Lions won the NFL championship,
  • The Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup,
  • Jack Kerouac published On the Road,
  • Dr. Seuss published The Cat in the Hat,
  • And Laura Ingalls died in Mansfield, Missouri.

I became an avid reader by the age of 5 and wrote my own stories. My schoolteachers encouraged me to write. Comments in report cards and letters to my parents said

  • Steve loves to daydream;
  • He has an amazing mind;
  • His writing is extremely original.

But I wanted to be an artist more than a writer. I drew every day. Even later in life, I knew I wanted to be an artist. Aptitude tests for the Navy and college said I was creative and artistic. And the Navy said I would make a good leader. I think my Myers-Brigg personality type indicator listed me as an ISTJ. Strengths for an ISTJ are responsible, reliable, and hardworking. ISTJs get the job done. They make great business executives, accountants, and lawyers.

But I wanted to be an artist.

I have always had a very active imagination. I live in a bit of a dream world when I can. I’m a visual person and I appreciate beauty and design. And most of all, I feel extremely anxious in the wrong surroundings. Working a job that shut me in an office would have likely driven me insane.

So, I headed to the outdoors and became a wildlife artist. I didn’t become rich or famous, but I did well enough doing what made me happy. Later in life, around 45, I began writing again. I had too many stories in my head, many leftover from my high school days, that I needed to let out. A writing quiz for authors suggested that I write Young Adult stories. It summarized me as someone who “loves to write about years gone by” and is “flexible enough to write like a teenager, with the wisdom and perspective of an adult.” So I did.

Since then, I don’t write or make art as often as I did. Now, I read and think a lot. It’s only natural. I’m in the Thinking and Judgement part of my ISTJ personality, doing some soul searching. I have always been philosophical and contemplative to seek an understanding of the deeper reasons for life. Now, more than ever, I’m intrigued by the unexplained, the mysteries of life, and the phenomena of nature. My kinship and love for the outdoors sparks a deep appreciation for the wonderment and beauty of nature. When I’m outdoors in nature, I feel fully alive.

It’s that feeling that has me looking forward to full retirement from the 9-to-5 working life that I do to pay the bills. 4-and-a-half more years to go.

Quiet and serious, you are well prepared for whatever life hands you.
—An ISTJ personality strength

Being Me, a Writer

I am me; not who others think I should be.

When I write, I write for me. I know what I like, so that’s what I write about. I stay away from topics I find offensive, which places me among writers whom many of our critics label “conventional” and “old school.” I don’t think being conventional is a bad thing. But it seems many critics believe writers should be avant-garde, pushing the envelope of taboos to acme just to shock and titillate their audience.

I don’t like vulgarity, but it’s a common theme in contemporary adult fiction. However, I prefer not to read extreme foul language, extreme violence, sex, or any other types of debauchery in literature. If there is an audience for it, I’m not a member. Keep it in the porn shops.

But it’s in all the bookstores. Even in the children’s section.

I know this because one of my critics suggested I read current books written for the age group of adolescents I write about in my books.

Imagine my surprise and disbelief when I read a recent popular YA novel about werewolves and vampires where foul language and graphic violence and sex occurred in almost every chapter.

Why are YA authors making this crudeness a reality and turning their young readers into voyeurs?

Perhaps they mimic life in the city, which hardened some of my relatives and made them crude, rude and almost criminal. Or maybe they find it on TV and the Internet, which are cornucopias of everything mentioned. I don’t know. I grew up during the late 1960s and early ’70s out in the country, went to a small school in a rural town, and kept my virginity into my 20s. It’s how life was for me. I know it well, remember it easily, and write about it a lot.

And that makes me “conventional” and “old school” to certain others who try to manipulate what’s inside the books we read.

Bah! I enjoy reading what I write. It’s the innocence of youth, when becoming an adult was years away and adolescents didn’t worry about pregnancy and STDs. It’s out of touch, I’m told, with most of today’s adolescents, but it’s in touch with me.

And when I write, I write for me.

New World Slavery [poetry]

A woman from a fishing village
slaves in a sweatshop,
making shirts for retail stores,
selling them at low prices
to help save shoppers money to spend at McDonald’s
after the Little League game tonight.

She makes barely enough money
to pay the rent of her shared one-bedroom apartment in the city
where hucksters scramble
day and night
to sell away her corner of the world
to anyone wanting a piece of the New World Dream.

She doesn’t dream asleep tonight,
but works to make enough money
to buy one of her nine daughters
a new dress this month,
to wear at the new school
Christian missionaries built last year
down the road from her home.
They convinced her government
to make school education mandatory
for everyone’s future welfare.

Now she sews and goes without eating
so her daughters are not left behind
when the corporate and political tsunami
crushes her world,
her life,
her heart.

For Whom Everything Is In Question [poetry]

Rain bundled like hay,
hit like bricks that obliterated homes to sea;
now she lives home-wrecked with her bony children
and colorless neighbors on a tropical dune
where they search for old haunts
in sand,
on waves
and in the sky.

I tell you this in memory of dancing bears
and the drunk in the furnace—
they who look for the old
always find the past,
but when they look for the new,
whatever they do has just begun.

Me [poetry]

Inhabited between
wild things,
wonderful things,
Who Am I?
No longer a main priority,
no longer stapled to a better forever
determining worth and future.

I am the problems I’m not letting go of.

I am the energy and struggle to do better
in this Magical universe,
reincarnate like eggs in a nest.

My wonderful soul is witching on Cosmic music
sounding brighter than the sun to every Poet
driving everything fresh
alive;
caressing the Muse upon my brow.

The most clouded minds
find a way into the Beautiful.

Let’s dance that jive a bit confused
alone together.
Inhabited between
wild things,
wonderful things,
greatly used into a smile strangely grinning
through the garden door of life,
into a Beautiful high.