Confessions of a Digital Novelist

Tools of the Trade

Progression of Evermore Cover Art

by on Feb.21, 2012, under Books, Digital Publishing, Tools of the Trade

In order to help E:COTN set itself apart on digital bookstores, I’ve hired an illustrator to draw the cover art for the novel. Thankfully, Jordan Knoll, who did the cover design for Suicide is a Tax Write-Off, recommended Kevin Bae from Toronto. His highly expressionistic art-work seemed to be a pretty good fit for Evermore’s imagined world.

So after some preliminary discussions, he started working on short form bookmarks while we worked out the contract details. After a short period of time, he sent me his first two ideas.

The first image on the left is Blue who, while not the protagonist, is nonetheless the most iconic character in the book. This first image is a simple profile shot of the character with shadow on the left slightly concealing her scar. My biggest concern with this image was that the scar was not nearly grotesque enough and a simple profile shot isn’t enough to catch a prospective readers attention. We needed more.

The second image on the right goes in a completely different direction. Highlighting three different areas of Evermore in the spheres and the three distinct parts of Blue’s subconscious (id, ego, super-ego), the second image was interesting but we both found that it was too complicated and abstract. A reader looking at it would have no idea what the novel is about or its major themes.

With my feedback and further discussions, Kevin came back with a third image.

Kevin found the geometric dimensions of Market Square to be quite fascinating, so he devised its structure in more detail. At the bottom left of the image you will find his idea of what the cover page would look. Much simplified, the cover illustration sets out an interesting outline and draws the eye. However, it is still a little too abstract. At this point, the reader is not going to know anything about Evermore. Thus, he will be unable to discern that the geometric shapes are supposed to represent a meta-physical place inside the virtual world.

Kevin went back to the drawing board and completed a fourth image that you can see on the left. The image is profile shot of Blue but her face is disintegrating into polygons. I found that I loved this idea as soon as it was suggested. It’s simple, focuses on the most interesting features of a major character and it symbolizes powerful one of the major themes of the novel: the loss of self in a virtual world. Her face falling into polygons represented how Blue was slowing losing her mind inside the virtual world of Evermore. I loved the idea. It seemed to say so much while showing so little.

However, this is where we also got off track. When Kevin asked if I loved the tessellations, I thought that he was referring to the polygons and said yes. In case you’re wondering, polygons are single-side geometric shapes that are used to create three dimensional models, tessellations are images that mirror one another. They are completely different yet I didn’t seem to notice until the next image, seen on the right, arrived.

As you can see, the fifth image is getting more detailed. Blue is looking over her shoulder to something menacing approaching. The skin detail is extraordinary yet I didn’t like the calligraphy blocking the rest of her body or the tessellations. Kevin stated that the calligraphy was a stand-in for her hair and duster jacket. That was fine but the tessellations were a sticking point.

We arranged a phone meeting which gave us a chance to get on the same page about what we were looking for visually. It was probably something that we should have done earlier in that it made it far easier and quicker to get across my ideas. It also gave me a chance to give Kevin the short five-minute version of the story (as there’s not enough time for him to read the manuscript) so he would have a better idea about what happens and the visual themes that he could take advantage. It was also here that I decided to expand our contract so that Kevin would create both the front and back page of the cover. I felt that since I had spent so much time and energy on this novel, I might as well get both front and back covers created just in case I decided to offer a print version sometime in the future. Kevin was excited as this would give me more space with which to work.

Kevin’s next image was much closer to what I was looking for. The image is startling. The use of colour and light is gloomy yet provocative. The main imagery is in place with only the details to work out. As you can see, the main image of the Blue disintegrates into pieces that continue on to the back cover. Great design. The only real problem that I had with it was that the facial expression. Blue looked like she was about to fall asleep where normally she would wear a continually expression of repressed rage.

Kevin kept at it and produced the seventh image that you can see on the left. You can definitely see the physical features of Blue coming together. Her menace is there but not yet apparent as it is still an earlier image. The colour contrast is interesting and I love the beam of Blue light on the backside of the cover. The only problem that I had was that the polygons have become pyramids. This gave me an opportunity to touch base with Kevin to make sure that we were on the same page. I wanted single-side polygons because their synthetic nature highlights the virtual world that is tearing Blue apart.

With that in mind, Kevin kept working and produced image number eight on the right. The minute I saw it, I know that he had nailed the facial expression of Blue. This is exactly how she would like if her mind was being pulled to pieces. She would be pissed, looking for somebody to hurt. We were definitely getting closer. For the last couple of images, Kevin had been working on having her mind disintegrate first into key objects from the virtual world of Evermore before they disintegrated further into simple polygons. You can see this idea beginning to come into fruition here. My only person is that polygons are a little flat. At the end, the polygons should look like they’re spinning in empty space.

Following my feedback, Kevin went and created the ninth image, which you can see on the left. While still early, you can definitely see the structure coming together. It has that great whoosh of light going off to the left, the facial expression is maintained and the polygons, while still flat, look appropriately synthetic. Kevin also added red lighting on the right to replace her anger and yellow lighting on the left. At this point, the basic structure of the is complete. Now Kevin will find-tune it with my feedback, make a connected design for the back cover, and start adding in the fine details.

At this point, the cover art is well on its way and in very capable hands. I am really excited about how it’s going and I hope you all really like it. As Kevin creates new versions, I’ll upload them to the website so you can check them out. All in all, it’s been a really cool process to go through with Kevin and I can wait to see how it turns out. For the serious self-publisher, I would highly recommend it. In a new world where anybody can publish, you have to look for every edge to stand apart. Cover art is a great place to start.






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Great Moments in Social Media

by on Oct.13, 2011, under Digital Publishing, Tools of the Trade

Social media has been hyped as a new communications, Web 2.0, a new way for people to connect and communicate. For book sellers like myself, it has also been hyped as a way to sell books by giving you a closer relationship with your consumers than had ever before been possible. I always thought that this was overselling it a little bit. However, I ran into an experience that showed me the power of social media.

Last week, I finally sat down and watched the first episode of Republic of Doyle, a CBC comedy about a father-son private investigator firm in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador (I have a couple of co-workers from NL so I promised them that I would give it a try). I thought it was pretty good so I posted a tweet about it. Here was the reaction:



Needless to say, my question was “Who is Allan Hawco and why is he contacting me?” After some research, I realized with a shock that this was star of the TV show “Republic of Doyle” mentioning me on Twitter. Neat! So of course, I had to follow him and I felt more encouraged to watch more episodes. This was the power of social media in action. I don’t know if it was an automatic response to the hashtag #republicofdoyle but even so it is still brilliant. @allanhawco is using twitter very effectively to build his audience. Of course I have to watch more episodes now, I know the guy.

When I release (finally) Evermore: Call of the Nocturne, I will learn from Allan Hawco’s example to build me audience. This is the power of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, it allows you to build your audience through social connections outside of the (very expensive) traditional methods of advertisement.

Thank you @allanhawco for a topical lesson. And for the rest of you, check out “Republic of Doyle”. It is a pretty good show.

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Michael Arndt’s Eight Steps for “Setting the Story in Motion”

by on Mar.28, 2011, under Storytelling Theory, Tools of the Trade, Writing

One of the hidden gems on the 4-disc Toy Story 3 Blu-Ray package from Disney is a ten-minute short film by screenwriter Michael Arndt. In it, Arndt reveals the eight step process that he found in films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles that helped him in writing Toy Story 3. Despite its short length, Arndt’s theory is an excellent contribution that deserves a closer look.

1) Show Your Main Character

Introduce the audience to your main character. As most of the story follows their perspective, you need to establish him in the mind of the audience. In the case of Toy Story, this is Woody. He is a toy that comes alive when humans aren’t watching.

2) Introduce the Universe that They Live In.

Give your audience a chance to see the world that the protagonist lives in. In the case of Toy Story, we see that Woody lives in Andy’s room with the other toys.

3) Show Your Character’s Grand Passion

Show your character doing the thing that they love the most. What is their Grand Passion? In Woody’s case, his grand passion is his place as Andy’s favourite toy. He has the favoured position Andy’s bed and the introductory playtime sequences always show him as the star of Andy’s imagination.

4) Show Your Character’s Hidden Flaw.

Only boring protagonists are perfect. Show the audience your main character’s flaw. Give them a flaw that comes out of their grand passion, that comes out of the thing they love doing the most. In Woody’s case, it’s pride. As Andy’s favourite toy, he has a lot of pride about his place in Andy’s bedroom. It is only natural that he gets his comeuppance.

5) Hint at Storm Clouds on the Horizon

Very subtly, hint to your audience that there is trouble out on the horizon. In the case of Toy Story, those storms clouds are Andy’s birthday party. All of the other toys are afraid of being replaced. Only Woody, proud of his status as Andy’s favourite tool, is unworried.

6) Turn Your Character’s World Upside Down

Something comes into your hero’s life and turns it upside down. It takes away their grand passion. In the case of Woody, the introduction of Buzz Lightyear changes everything. Because Buzz is such a cool tool, Andy and all of the other toys prefer him. Woody finds himself relegated to the Toy Chest while Buzz gets the preferred spot on Andy’s bed. Woody has lost his greatest possession: his status as Andy’s favourite toy.

7) Add Insult to Injury

If that is not enough, you have to add insult to injury. It is not enough to take away your protagonist’s grand passion, you always have to humiliate him in the process. In the case of Toy Story, not only does he lose his place as favourite toy to Buzz, Buzz has no idea that he’s a toy! As Woody loses favour, you can see his frustration at Buzz’s cluelessness. He’s being replaced by an imbecile! This step is important to show your character’s frustration at a world that is completely unfair.

8) Have Your Character Make the Wrong Choice

This is the big one. Bring your main character to a fork in the road. At this fork, they have two choices: a right choice and a wrong choice. Of course the character makes a wrong choice. Having seen what he has gone through, we understand perfectly why he makes the wrong choice. We even WANT him to make the wrong choice. This wrong choice comes out of his grand passion and provokes a crisis that sets us on our way to Act 2. Let’s take Toy Story again. In Toy Story, Woody, having been displaced and insulted by the deluded Buzz Lightyear, decides to try to knock Buzz behind the dresser so that Andy will have to take him to Pizza Planet. The plan goes awry, Buzz is knocked out the window, and the other toys blame Woody, leaving him no choice but to find and return Buzz to Andy’s room. That leads us right into Act 2.

Arndt shows us the same structure at play in Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. The structure works well because the plot develops from the hero’s internal character, making it more personal. It also gives us something that character, alongside the main plot, must resolve inside himself. In the case of Toy Story, Woody not only brings back Buzz safely, but he also learns how to overcome his flaws and earn the friendship of Buzz. The hero’s journey becomes as much metaphysical as physical.

But how can we apply these lessons to our own stories. In my case, Arndt’s theory forced a number of changes in the opening Act of Evermore: Call of the Nocturne. While  I found that I had followed several of his steps already, thinking his theory allowed me to make some changes that greatly improved the opening act. Please let me go through it one step at a time.

1) Show Your Main Character

In Evermore: Call of the Nocturne, the reader is introduced to Mmorpg, a geekish computer nerd who has difficulty dealing with people directly. He prefers the virtual world to the real world as he has far more control over it.

2) Introduce the Universe that They Live In.

Mmorpg lives in Vancouver, BC. But his real home is at his laboratory at the University of British Columbia where he administrates a virtual online world known as Evermore.

3) Show Your Character’s Grand Passion

Mmorpg’s greatest passion is Evermore itself. Having created the most popular Massively-Multiplayer Online (MMO) game in the world, Mmorpg is understandably proud of his accomplishment. He believes that Evermore will change the world for the better and thus he is very protective of it, allowing only himself access to the computer code that sustains it.

4) Show Your Character’s Hidden Flaw.

Mmorpg’s hidden flaw is his pride towards his creation. Enamoured by its possibilities, Mmorpg is unable or unwilling to see its possible consequences, both to himself and others.

5) Hint at Storm Clouds on the Horizon

During the opening chapters, Evermore’s Initial Public Offering (IPO) is mentioned nervously. In a few days, stock will be sold in the online world, making all of its founders, especially Mmorpg, incredibly rich.

6) Turn Your Character’s World Upside Down

Mmorpg’s world is shattered when a little girl dies inside Evermore. Having written the security protocols that are meant to protect people inside the virtual world, Mmorpg is dumbfounded by failure. He continually insists that they are perfect despite the obvious evidence to the contrary.

7) Add Insult to Injury

With the death of the little girl, it is obvious that the government will move in to shut down Evermore. All of Mmorpg’s hard work, all of his sacrifices will have been for nothing. While he watches helplessly, his life’s work is falling to pieces.

8) Have Your Character Make the Wrong Choice

Rather than choose to go straight to the authorities, as he should, Mmorpg chooses instead to perpetrate a massive coverup. He seals off the crime scene and disables the logout function, trapping everyone including the killer inside Evermore. To ensure that nobody gets wise, he tricks anyone who attempts to log out by trapping them inside another virtual reality where they log out, feel tired, and go to bed for a nap. Given that he can’t keep people locked up in the virtual world forever, Mmorpg is forced to find the killer. To that end, his organization hires a dangerous mercenary called Blue and we are into the 2nd Act.

It was here that Arndt’s advice really paid dividends. Originally, Mmorpg simply makes the choice because, well because the plot demanded it. I hadn’t made the case in the character of Mmorpg why he would do such a thing. With Arndt’s theory, I made his connection to his creation far stronger in the early going, introduced the storm crowds (the government) that threatens to take away his dream, and confront him directly with the moral choice that leads us into the 2nd Act. Now we know why Mmorpg makes that decision and more importantly, we want him to make that decision. Furthermore, this moral choice makes Mmorpg’s eventual comeuppance (no spoilers) and reconciliation far more effective.

Michael Arndt himself states that these steps are not for every story, but they are a useful tool to help you develop the opening to your story. In my case, they helped to make a good opening even better. I hope that they’ll help you too.


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