Friday, 5 April 2019

Image layering in Canva: a basic tutorial

You all know I'm a big fan of Canva, a great online tool that allows those authors who are not Photoshop pros to create decent-looking book covers for free.

Disclaimer: if you have any budget at all for a book cover, buy or commission the best you can afford. After actually having a decent book, a good cover may make the difference between succeeding and failing. It is one of the best investments you can make. If, however, you do need to design your own covers, Canva can be a lifesaver. I don't believe you need to wait until you make enough money to publish a book. You can publish with a decent cover, make some sales, and then funnel your earnings into a re-launch with an awesome cover that will take your marketing to a whole new level.

So let's begin. For me, it usually starts with Pixabay, the safest and least confusing image source. You can freely use any image there for commercial purposes. Of course, someone else might have used it in a book cover already, but that's the case with all stock photography, even if you pay for it.

Let's say I'm making a cover for a historical fiction novel titled "Lady of the Fire". I find this image, which is fantastic:


... But I also want a fiery theme, with a background such as this:

It appears that my best option in this case is to make the woman's image semi-transparent and layer it over the fiery background. To do that, I go to Canva, choose the book cover design option, and upload both images. As I adjust the sizes and placing, I select the lady's image, press "Position" and choose "Forward". This means that the fire remains in the background.

Then there is the fading checkers image. These are the transparency settings. I play around with them until I'm satisfied and adjust both images over each other until they merge perfectly. 

Add the title and pronto:

The semi-transparency of the front image adds a touch I really like. I could play with the fonts some more, but this will do for now.

I hope you found this tutorial useful! Please feel free to share.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Paths of the Shadow now permafree!

After considering the pros and cons of this for a while, I finally pulled Quest of the Messenger from KDP Select to wide distribution and made the first book of the trilogy, Paths of the Shadow, permafree.

Some authors firmly believe in the principle of "zero price = zero value", and are offended by the mere idea of giving their book away for free, but I disagree. As a matter of fact, this ability to make a book permafree and not worry about setting up free promotional days once a quarter, was part of what swayed me in the direction of going wide.

The concept of taking something you have poured blood, sweat and time into, and just offer it for download, may rankle when you only have a book or two out, but the more books you publish, the more it makes sense. There's nothing like offering the first in a series (or a stand-alone book that is one of several in a similar setting) for free to funnel new readers to buy the rest.

This tactic is successfully used by those people who promote new products in supermarket stalls, as well as by dope dealers - give a free sample to get people hooked so that they will pay for the rest.

Naysayers will claim that people who download free books are only looking for freebies and don't often bother to read what they grabbed anyway. But if a series has been sitting on a shelf for years and doesn't get much traction, the chance of getting some readers - even without getting paid - is better than nothing.

If you get a 1,000 people to download your book, 100 of them might read it, 10 might like it, and one might love it so much that they become your diehard fan and buy all of your books, give you a bunch of glowing, genuine reviews and recommend your book to others. It's all about numbers - the more pebbles you throw into a pond, the more ripples you create.

So if you like epic fantasy, medieval settings, dark magic and lots of intrigue, go ahead and grab your copy of Paths of the Shadow.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

How to survive with no support network: for authors

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You know those heart-warming statements by successful authors who say, "I would never have been able to get to this point without my spouse/family/significant other. Their support meant everything to me along the way"? 

This is great, it really is. I'm always happy for authors who had that support from their nearest and dearest while they were clawing their way up the rocky, lonely path from first draft to publishing success (whatever success means to them - a trad publishing deal, critical acclaim, a significant income stream). But what you don't often hear, despite how common it is, are experiences such as, "My wife would pull faces and come up with random to-do lists every time I sat down to write, and just couldn't stand me 'wasting my time' like that. Whatever I have achieved, I have achieved despite her lack of support and appreciation."

A fellow author once told me, "My husband and kids complained constantly that I never paid attention to them. I was always writing, they said. Cooked dinners, housecleaning, and the full time paycheck I made went unnoticed. What mattered was the fact that not every single second of my day was focused on them or serving their needs."

It's hard not to grow resentful. It does chafe and grate when your husband looks up from his phone, on which he's been busy browsing AliExpress, and asks, "are you sure you can afford to waste so much time on this?" - which brings me to my first point of advice:

Don't hate them. As popular as it is to say that our spouses/family are supposed to stand 100% behind our every venture and give unconditional support, the fact is that writing, like any entrepreneurial venture really, is a steep, uphill climb with a very uncertain outcome. Your family/spouse may be genuinely concerned that you are investing your all into something that is unlikely to ever pay off. It really is easy to neglect our own needs and the needs of our families, and to pour money into something that may yield no return, which brings me to point number two:

Balance, balance, balance. When you're on your own, it means you're also the one responsible for taking care of yourself. If you find yourself hovering over the keyboard with your fingers shaking, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and faint with hunger; if you find yourself resenting  your bladder for demanding relief and your kids for asking, at 3 PM, whether lunch will be happening anytime today, you should probably slow down, or you risk going the fast track to burnout. Few writers at the start of their road can afford to write full-time. I know I'm not even part-way there.

But don't give up, either. Carve out every possible moment to write. Make use of those little pockets of time that inevitably occur each day. We all have them; on the train, waiting in line to the doctor's office, or when you catch yourself goofing around on Pinterest. Don't worry about efficiency. Just write a few paragraphs, even on your phone or in longhand. Don't wait for that perfect moment when you're on your computer with a cup of tea at hand, the house quiet and you're at leisure. For more advice on how to find time for writing, check out my free e-book, Writing Tips for Busy People.

Finally...

Make sure you aren't all alone. The online writing community is amazing. It can make the difference between giving up and plunging onward. There are so many people out there just like you, just like me - or people who had been in the same place until not too long ago. A supportive network is worth its weight in gold, and I'm so thankful for it.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Writing to market: why and how

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It is popular to say, "write what you love", "don't short-sell your art" and "money won't buy happiness", and... yeah, money might not be the most important thing in the world. 

Until, you know, it is. 

Because money might not make you happy, but lack of it can surely make you extremely miserable. Money might not buy health, but it will sure buy good health insurance; money won't buy love, but the day-to-day battle for financial survival saps out energy and joy of life. 

As someone who has been through major financial straits with my family, I can definitely tell you that, hypothetically, if someone offered me lifelong financial competence (paid off house, new car every few years, college savings for all the kids) under the condition that I won't write another word ever again, I'd accept in a heartbeat. 

No such cheeky little fairy is likely to come my way, however, so I'm free to go on writing while I try to figure out how to also make a living of it and have balanced family time.

I came to writing as a career from a point of financial crisis and major strain, which is probably not the best place to start with, as you do preferably want some funds you would invest in your books, like in any other business, but it did help me focus. 

One of the reasons why I'm not no longer looking for an agent is that, even if someone could guarantee that I will land a good one, I can't afford the long-term haul of chasing a book deal. I'm not interested in literary recognition or winning contests for its own sake, either. Please give me the money, preferably soon so I can pay the electric bill. 

That's also why, after casting my net far and wide with several genres I love, I am currently focusing on my Frozen World Antarctic sci-fi series, which is garnering me the best and steadiest reader response I have ever experienced. More established authors would probably see this as small potatoes, but for me it really is a cause for celebration when I get unsolicited sales and reviews. 

Some authors are laboring under the misconception that "writing to market" means picking up the most popular genre of the moment and starting to work in that genre even if you absolutely hate it. Actually, writing to market means picking the one genre of those YOU love which is doing best commercially, and focusing on it. 

This makes sense on more levels than just money. We writers, the cultural heirs of those storytellers gathering an eager audience around the cave fire, don't create in a vacuum. We thrive on the love, interest and engagement of our readers, and can only keep so long at something no one seems to want to read. 

This doesn't mean that you should lower your standards with the reasoning of, "fans of the genre will swallow anything". Nor do you have to follow tropes, as is explained in this excellent post: "Formula writing means that by chapter two this has to happen and by the midpoint this other thing has to happen. Or, there has to be a rival for the heroine’s affections, or the dreaded misunderstanding. There are perhaps writers who write to formula, but that isn’t what’s meant by writing to market."

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Are you a good boss?

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Once upon a time, I used to work for a real douchebag. If there were a competition for the title of World's Worst Boss, that stinker would take it. I mean it.

I was fresh out of high school, and this was my first "real" job. It was the post of a secretary which entailed some simple administrative tasks like filing, answering phone calls, and making coffee.

It didn't take me long to figure out that my boss was a crook. I was besieged with phone calls from angry people to whom he owed money. I was instructed to say he's abroad every time. When an important client came for a visit, I was requested to put on a show to make them believe that more people than the three or four of us worked in the office. I was made to "dress-up" empty desks like active work spaces, with landline phones and masses of papers.

This propensity of cheating people was not limited to outsiders. The salary we settled on was ridiculous in proportion to the number of hours I put it, but somehow, at the end of the month the paycheck showed an even lower number, and he "had no idea how it happened".

If that isn't enough, my boss was an arrogant, presumptuous, ill-tempered bully. He drank twenty cups of coffee a day, and was particular about always wanting to drink from the same cup, which I likewise had to wash twenty times a day. He yelled at me when I dared to serve him coffee in a different cup. He yelled at me when I didn't answer the phone fast enough. He didn't have the basic decency to maintain a tidy working space. He was a chain smoker and his ashtray was always overflowing.

To top it off, this disgusting blown-up fart refused to step into the elevator together with the cleaning lady, claiming that "she stinks". He stank himself - like a million week-old stale cigarettes. By the way, the cleaning lady came to ask about her payment again and again, too. He swindled that poor woman who was working for a minimum wage and had a family to feed.

You will be glad to know that I left his office at the end of two months, never to see or hear from this ugly swine again. He had given me a lifelong acute aversion to dishonest crooks who abuse their authority.

While my former boss was a humongous cowpie, however, I sometimes have to stop and wonder if I'm being a much better employer to myself. As a freelancer, and thus my own boss, am I giving myself fair working conditions, a fair wage, and fair prospects? With no one to breathe down our necks, it's easy to loaf on Pinterest... but equally easy to succumb to burnout.

So fellow indie authors, just a reminder: put in the work, but don't burn yourself out. Take that walk. Have that cup of tea. Unplug from social media. Catch the moment when you are just spinning your wheels, and take a break. Cuddle your cat. Do some knitting.

This is a marathon. Be good to yourself to keep your productivity for the long term.

Monday, 11 February 2019

The man who would be Moses

The Ethiopian Jews (the Beta Israel) are a living, breathing miracle. It simply doesn't seem natural that a Jewish community could exist for thousands of years in complete isolation from the rest of their brethren, without the support network that every other Jewish community has had, and still adhere to the traditions of their ancestors. They strictly kept the laws of ritual purity as described in Leviticus, and made animal sacrifices, long after these two practices were cast aside by rabbinical Judaism as obsolete without the existence of a Temple. Their religious practice ran along a parallel line, developing its own customs and beautiful liturgy.

If it sounds like I love these people, it's because I do. I can't find a more perfect example of the resilience of the Jewish people, who had preserved their identity despite many generations of hardship, privation and apparent hopelessness, and who remained one nation despite being scattered worldwide for so long. The fascinating cultural mosaic of modern Israel can bear evidence to that.

Fascinated as I am with Ethiopian Israelite history, I had long inner debates on whether I dare to venture into it as an author. The vocal pitch of #ownvoices and #notyourstory demands that the ethnicity of the author should match that of their protagonists, which is ridiculous and limiting to a degree I can hardly describe. Finally, I said, Hang it all! I'm Jewish! If someone is part of my people, their story is, in a way, my story too. Thus Land of the Lost Tribe was born.

I am currently working on another novel set in Ethiopia of over a thousand years ago, but in the meantime, I let my creative bunnies run wild and produced this complementary short story, Mahari, which fast-forwards a few centuries all the way to 1862. At that time, the condition of the Beta Israel was probably at an all-time low. The glory of their independent kingdom, which at one point ruled over extensive regions of Ethiopia, was long past. Contact with the rest of the Jewish world was nonexistent. Oppression, isolation, hopelessness, and missionaries took a heavy toll, and many of the Beta Israel converted to Christianity, much in the same way as the Marranos of Spain. 

Abba Mahari, an Ethiopian Jewish monk, was a charismatic religious leader who, in the year 1862, organized and led a desperate but inspiring exodus from Ethiopia in the hopes of reaching Jerusalem. Abba Mahari failed, but his heroic journey helped to keep the dream alive and paved the road to the eventual repatriation of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. 

You can download Mahari for free in epub format here, and in PDF here.


Sunday, 3 February 2019

Blood Heir: the book totalitarian police reaches new levels

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The Blood Heir controversy is a predictable climax to all the #ownvoices, cultural appropriation police and PC culture craze that has been raging in the writing world unrestrained these past couple of years. It's like we can no longer put our fingers to the keyboard without fear of offending someone. 

For those who haven't heard of this outrage yet, here's a recap: debut author Amelie Zhao was bullied into pulling her soon-to-be-published fantasy novel because some ARC readers decided it was "racist" and started an online shaming campaign.

I haven't read the book, but I do know this: it's impossible to create when you have to keep walking on eggshells for fear of hurting the feelings of some precious snowflake. It's like some people are just waiting to spot anything related to race/culture and latch upon it, charging with burning torches and screaming "racism! Insensitivity! Cultural appropriation!"

You can't please everyone. It's kind of useless to try. 

Here's the deal: belonging to a historically oppressed group doesn't give you a carte blanche to make unreasonable demands of ownership over historical narratives. I'm Jewish; I'm not offended when non-Jewish people write about Jews. I'm a woman; I don't get my feathers all ruffled when male authors write female characters. 

Some of my fiction is set in Ethiopia, and I suppose I'm only spared the accusations of cultural appropriation thanks to the fact that my books aren't popular enough to draw fire. I will keep writing whatever the heck I want. I will do my best to be sensitive and thorough in my research, but I won't ask anyone's permission to write. I was drawn to writing for the FREEDOM to create. No one will take this away from me. No one will tell me that a subject is off limits because I belong to the wrong gender/ethnicity. 

Another issue is the infamous 'representation' thing. Apparently, you can get a red flag not just for what you write, but for what you fail to include in your book. Newsflash: authors don't owe anyone anything. I refuse to make a character black, white, tall, short, gay, straight, or whatever, to 'represent' a group. I write my characters the way they work with my vision for my particular story. I hate racism and oppression of any kind - and that's why I won't let anyone oppress me as an author. 

I have long been saying that this whole PC obsession in literature is blown way out of proportion. We, as authors, should have the freedom to focus on what the readers want - a darn good story - without dodging rotten tomatoes for failing to support militant agendas.