Archive | August 2012

Cover Up

If an author has an agent and a publisher, he or she may have little to do with designing the cover.

As a self-published author (a.k.a indie author or self-pubber), everything comes down to me. This becomes a problem with the artistic aspects. I can doodle, I can’t draw. So I put a team together and this is how they looked after me.

My first stop was Ian Wilson. Ian is an artist, who focuses these days on brand and marketing design. I’ve known him forever. What he did first was to take my brief and turn it into a sketch.

The brief :

Front page

  • Amber on the right, facing left at an angle. She’s auburn haired and athletic. She’s dressed in tight jeans and T, possibly with a jacket (brown glossy, not distressed). She carrying a gun, a Heckler & Koch Mk 23. It’s big (common Urban Fantasy theme).
  • In the middle ground, Denver skyline at night. Background is the Rockies with a little snow on them. Moon in the sky. Urban Fantasy moons are large.
  • Wolf eyes at the bottom of the page – photo or artwork (again, common Urban Fantasy theme).
  • Title at the top, my name at the bottom.

Back page

  • Dark – possibly a continuation of the Rockies.
  • Blurb, ISBN. These will obscure most of the image.
  • Gang motif (twinned rattlesnakes) or wolf’s head motif. Possibly blank carnival masks.


  • Marque symbol. Name. Title.

And what came back was this :

Sleight of Hand Cover

Sleight of Hand Cover Draft

I loved this image as soon as I saw it. Ian ‘lost’ a lot of the fiddly motifs I was looking for, and concentrated on getting a high impact, uncluttered foreground.

The wolf eyes didn’t make it, and it needed something more to signal Urban Fantasy. So we decided we needed a wolf :

OK, this was me. I just clipped an image from the web and scribbled a body behind Amber. The inclusion of the wolf was a minor stumbling block for me because Amber doesn’t actually see a werewolf close up like this in the first book. The need for the cover to shout Urban Fantasy overrode that reservation.

It was time to take it to the cover artist. Most businesses who do book covers work down to a price and that dictates that everything comes from stock photography. I wasn’t happy with that, and chose instead to go with Claire Curtis. As well as being a cover artist, Claire is a good photographer in her own right—have a look at her website (details at end).

The image then broke down into main elements :

  • A model with the right look and clothes
  • A gun
  • Stock images – wolf, Denver skyline, Rockies, forest

(We were unable to contract a wolf to stand behind Amber and snarl.)

Getting someone who looks the part was difficult. Amber is part native North American, part Celtic. She’s athletic, not model skinny.

I was lucky. My daughter is an actor and she found another actor, Maria Askew, on the website Casting Call Pro, who had the look as well as modelling experience. And she was available as long as we got the session in before she went off to Edinburgh to do a show for the Fringe. Maria joined the team and we met up at Claire’s studio.

In the same way I find it difficult to visualize the whole cover design, I found it difficult to see the cover from the photo session!

A big problem was the gun. While writing the book, I researched what pistols Amber would be familiar with, considering her background in the special forces. I came up with a Heckler and Koch Mk 23 which had the benefit of actually being designed for the special forces and it was a monster to boot. Great. Unfortunately, I could not get hold of the actual thing, nor could I get hold of a model of it. We used a model of a similar gun, and the rest is digital wizardry. I know many people would have just gone with any large gun, but having made an issue of it in the story, I didn’t want readers complaining it wasn’t the right gun on the cover!

Now, in amongst the hundreds of photos, we had ‘Amber’.

Claire went to work, and what came out was this :

This got the ass-kicking look and the wolf snarl right on. It would have been ideal to have the wolf curled  round Amber, but there wasn’t a stock photograph that did that.

The last job was for Ian to take the image and drop the text and symbols onto it.

And that’s what will appear on the printed book when it goes on sale in September.

The team:

Ian Wilson : – branding, marketing

Maria Askew : – actor, model

Claire Curtis : – cover art

Breaking the Rules

You can deconstruct any genre, and make it seem trivial. Urban Fantasy (UF) is no exception.

Kick ass heroine is excluded from her family/pack/societal group, because of flaw/rules/genetic purity, and this makes her angry and defensive, which manifests as extreme sass and confidence. She feels no- one loves her, but a gorgeous man/were/vampire/demon is smitten with her and they make beautiful love and alarming mayhem in defeating the threat to the societal group/world, aided by the very flaw that excluded her (and some nice weapons).


Well, they tell me there are really only five stories anyway* (*needs reference), so any book in any genre is going to sound trivial when deconstructed.

I love UF because it starts from a position of breaking rules. UF didn’t exist and publishers didn’t want it or invent it; it caused problems for them because there wasn’t (and still isn’t in many actual bookstores) a shelf for UF. Writers and readers created it by taking other genres and smashing them together under great pressure. Sorta like making diamonds from coal.

But can writers continue to break the rules and not lose their UF audience?

I’m about to find out.

I’m always intent on there being as much reality as possible in what I write. It’s too easy for writers (all of us) to ‘magic’ it. Yes, we’re trapped and the situation is hopeless, but here’s a spell you (the reader) didn’t know existed that is tailor-made to smart-bomb the enemy. Kazam! Game over.

At the other end of the world-building, is the ‘because’. Why is she angry? How can she do that? Because. A ‘because’ just makes you accept whatever is there without explaining how it came about. I try to avoid this and make real-life reasons for the situations my protagonists find themselves in.

So, Amber in the Bite Back series is self-confident and can kick serious ass because she spent ten years in the army learning to be like that. She is super-fit and strong because she is OCD on exercise. She has angers that she has buried for a reason. And I make this plain within the stories as they unfold. And that’s sorta neat, but it doesn’t break any rules.

What of my other protagonists, and the reasons they are like they are? There’s no room in the main novels, so their tales need to be separate entities. And their tales may not fit comfortably within the UF fold.

Bian is the first of these. Many readers have enjoyed her and some have actually said she’s at least equal favorite with Amber, which is an enormous vote of support. And there are reasons for the way she behaves; the outrageous, provocative, flippant, teasing attitude masks a horrific odyssey. Bian’s Tale crosses the divide from Urban Fantasy to Horror.

Hacha del Diablo is second. This is a prequel to Sleight of Hand, a story from when Amber was still in special operations, deep in the jungle, losing members of her squad one by one. I guess if it’s a genre then it’s Military Horror. It certainly isn’t Urban Fantasy, and mixing it into my UF world breaks the rules.

Hope you like breaking rules with me.

I’m pretending to be a woman

Not really the short skirts and makeup sort, me. No, I’ve written a book in the first person, as Amber Farrell, a Denver PI having a hard time and tangling with the hidden paranormal world in Colorado.

As I put it to my editor, I like a challenge. Why this one?

Simply put: range. If I have a male protagonist, he can be tough or he can be sensitive. Yes, I know great writers can carry it off and have tough, sensitive, credible, male protagonists. And I aspire to be able to carry it off too, one day.

In the meantime, when Amber smashes through the window, firing her gun and taking out the bad guys, you won’t (I hope) be thinking ‘more macho bullshit’. And when Amber later hugs the young girl she saved and takes comfort from it, despite knowing she will never have a daughter to hold like that, you won’t feel it’s out of character.

I’ve loved writing about Amber, exploring tough and snarky, sexy and unsubtle right alongside restrained, sensitive and hurt, with even the odd tear.

When I came out (so to speak) as the male author of a female protagonist, my friends and family were very supportive.

Some of them suggested that I could hide my gender, pretend to be Marcia rather than Mark. It was tempting, but in the end I went with some advice from Stella Duffy (if you haven’t already, go read her now):

“Be honest and concentrate on the story. Don’t pretend to be what you’re not. The story’s the important thing. Do it right and they’ll love you for it.”

I hope I did it right.

Telling it Like it is

How many ways do I need to tell it like it is? Answer: 5 ways.

You’ve written a book. Someone asks you what it’s about. You sit them down and start reading from page 1. Hint: this often doesn’t work out well. People may stop asking.

Being asked casually is one reason you need what’s called an elevator pitch or a lift pitch. Your great book wrapped up in 30 seconds, the average length of a ride in an elevator (I’m told – I’m sad, but not so sad I’d go research that).

Since you need it, don’t skimp on preparation. Because the person trapped in the elevator with you may be an agent or publisher, and this may be your only chance to communicate to them how great you book is.

Practice the very same pitch on casual inquirers as well. Because when the casual inquirers turn round and say, “wow, can I read it?” you know that your pitch is working.

So in 30 seconds what can you say?

You have to mention the genre and the style-

    It’s a dark thriller

    It’s a humorous paranormal romance

It’s a good idea to introduce the protagonist-

     Featuring Grant Nailor, a wisecracking ex-cop

    Involving Belle, a southern lady who runs a cake shop

And the motivation-

    Who’d rather be fishing

    Who’s desperate to meet anyone who’s not dead

You might even stop there.

But if there are some seconds left before the doors open, give the central question-

    But whose dying friend’s last words give him the clue to unravel a government conspiracy.

    But can’t resist the ghost of a Confederate colonel.

Thirty seconds. Practice it.

Next up lengthwise, the dreaded blurb. The thing on the back cover or the Amazon description panel which will sell your book. OMG. No pressure.

Build on the elevator pitch. Add in the where and bring in the focus on that central question-

Grant Nailor’s a wise-cracking ex-cop happily running a deep sea fishing boat out of the Keys for rich tourists when his pal Dempsey gets himself shot. Dempsey’s dying words hint at a macabre conspiracy involving the disappearance of his niece. Grant would rather be fishing, but he has to put his mind at rest, for Dempsey’s sake. Far from that, every enquiry he makes leads him further into a nightmare of corruption and lust pointing at the highest levels of government. But when evidence starts to turn up linking Grant to the last known whereabouts of missing girls, it becomes a race against time. Will Grant etc. etc.

Belle’s cake shop is the heart of the Port George community, and is never empty. But Belle’s own heart etc. etc.

(I never said I was good at these)

Aim for about 150 words for a book cover. Tell the reader how the plot starts, but don’t give away anything beyond the opening few scenes. The reader needs to come away wanting to know more – either “what happens?” or “how does that happen?”.

You can put more on the Amazon panel, but beware – blurb readers have the attention span of a gnat.

Next up are the synopses and summaries. Huh? Surely there’s only one of these. Well, yes, there should be an international standard which says a synopsis is three pages of single spaced, but there isn’t. The three lengths I advise are 1 page, 3 pages and as many as you like.

A synopsis tells everything, even your cunning ending. Amazingly, agents don’t want to read your book for entertainment. Your inquiry is a business proposition, and they want to see that your proposal is complete and that it’s thought through. Who did it, why did they do it, and how they are caught and brought to justice (in the example of Grant’s book above). The detail, such as it is, varies by genre. What’s important in Grant’s book would be the local police force investigating him and seizing his charter boat, or the girl he almost manages to warn before she disappears. In Belle’s story, well, I’m not quite sure how she has a romance with a ghost, but for that reason, it would be important that that came across in the synopsis in a convincing way.

Why the different synopsis lengths?

Purely because agents approach inquiries in different ways, asking for different lengths. If you have the first two, it should cover almost any request. You can trim or expand for slightly different lengths, and they should fall in this range.

In a synopsis, name the antagonist, the protagonist and maybe two or three other characters. Beyond that, introduce names of people, groups or places purely to save words. For example, if a cabal of corrupt politicians is part of the plot and they’re called the Circle, introduce them

as such and use the name Circle. If they have no name, use cabal. Every time you introduce a name, even if it’s purely for reference in the synopsis, like cabal, highlight it in bold.

Rule breaker 1: I have once been asked for a synopsis in a paragraph. Basically that’s the elevator pitch with a one sentence outcome-

Grant has to fight against false charges and assassination attempts, but in the end, unmasks the governor as a devotee of a sadistic cult and guilty of multiple murders.

Rule breaker 2: I’ve given formulas to generate blurbs and synopses. Never use a formula when you have a blinding flash of inspiration instead.

So why the last, big, long-as-you-like synopsis. Because that’s the one you do first. That’s the one where you indulge yourself by getting in all the details that are important to you as a writer. It sometimes even helps with editing, plot revision and spotting holes. And it’s the one you start with when producing the blurb or synopsis. You work on it by taking a red pen and repeatedly asking what you do not need to say. And who knows, one day an agent might actually ask for a twelve page summary.

Hello, you’re Hugh Agent aren’t you? What floor you going to? What’s my book about? Oh gosh-

Amber Farrell is a Denver PI, down on her luck and being chased by drug gangs and vampires, when she takes on a job for a prominent local businesswoman. The case pits her against werewolves and then lands her in the middle of a centuries old vampire war that threatens the whole world.

Interested in finding out more about Amber? Check it out:

Hello world!

Welcome to my  blog, where I’ll be posting my thoughts (ramblings) on writing and updates (shameless self-promotion) on the Bite Back series.

Here’s a little bit about me:

My name is Mark Henwick and I was born in Africa and left out in the sun too often.

An early interest in philosophy and psychology was adequately exorcised by tending bars. And while trying to enroll in a class to read Science Fiction full time, I ended up taking an engineering degree which splendidly qualified me to move into marketing. That in turn spawned a late onset career in creative writing.

And here’s a little bit about ‘Sleight of Hand’, book one in the Bite Back series:

“Vampires are the flickering illusions of Hollywood. They don’t exist. We do. We are the Athanate.”

For Amber Farrell, post-military life as a PI has its ups and downs: She’s been hit by a truck. She’s being sued by a client. Denver’s newest drug lord just put out a contract on her. The sinister Athanate want her to come in for a friendly chat. And it’s only Tuesday.

Enter Jennifer Kingslund: rich, gorgeous – a tough businesswoman who’s known for getting what she wants in the boardroom and the bedroom. Someone’s trying to sabotage her new resort and destroy her company – and she wants Amber to find out who.

The answers lead Amber past Were and Adepts, right back to the Athanate – and a centuries-old war that could threaten not just Denver, but the nation that Amber swore to protect and serve.

And all sides want to claim her for their own…

Interested in finding out more about Amber? Check it out: