Cover art with Stuart Jaffe

Today, gentle reader, I have asked a good friend of the blog, author Stuart Jaffe, to write a bit about cover art. He has two series with fantastic cover art – the Max Porter series and the Nathan K. series- please follow the link to check them out. Here’s Stuart!

Ah, cover art. A topic that could fill (and probably does) numerous books. Let’s try to narrow things down a little and take a look at some specific aspects of cover art. Today, let’s take a look at cover art for a series. Those last three words are the most important towards addressing this topic — for a series. Because what this really means is branding. You have an artist and you have an idea for the correct image to express the genre and mood of your book, but what about the series as a whole? If branded properly, a reader will be able to see at a glance that several books laid out next to each other are part of the same series. Heck, even if other books are interspersed, a reader should be able to pick out the series books.

In order to achieve this, there are a few things to consider, and in the grand tradition of the internet, I’ll bullet-point them for you:

Color: there are a ton of ways to approach this, and working with an artist helps. The thing to remember is that color is one simple way to connect all your books. My Max Porter books have numerous indicators that they are a series, one of which is color. Every three books follow the same color scheme.  Books 1-3 are all shades of blue. Books 4-6 are red. And the green set of three will finish out later this year. But color can be more than a monotone. You can choose to make all the colors pastels, or bright neons, or nothing but dark colors except one bright color. As long as you follow the pattern throughout the series, color will help connect the books. Color also helps define genre — for example, dark, moody colors are obviously not the choice for a romantic-comedy about summer camp. Most genres have set colors which you should be familiar with. Feel free to break from those limits, but know the rules first, then break them.

Layout: the layout of the entire cover should be consistent throughout a series. The author name, the book title, the blurb quotes, any information you put on the cover should always be in the same place on every cover (or as close as the cover image will allow). This consistency will contribute majorly to branding the series. Plus, if you have a layout in mind to begin with, it will help your artist understand what parts of the canvas they have to work with. The layout doesn’t need to be fancy — most layouts follow one of handful of patterns — but it does need to be consistent. There are times when shifting this information on the page is necessary or even desired, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Lettering: this refers to everything about the words. Font choice, font size, font color, you name it. And guess what? Just like all the above, you are looking for consistency. I recommend using no more than two fonts and use them the same way every time on every cover. In my Max Porter novels, the title and my name are in one font, the other (smaller) writing is in a second font. Those fonts, the general size and placement of the lettering, and the color choice (which is consistent with the entire color scheme, all are the same throughout the series. In my post-apocalyptic fantasy series, The Malja Chronicles, you can see that the stylized titles are also consistent. In those books, the words THE WAY OF are turned on the side and the various titles are made extra-large. Every time. Every book.

Image: this one is optional but very effective. If there is a single image or image type than can be repeated in every cover, you have another great way to tie a series together.  A single image can be a character or location or anything.  The Max Porter books have a variety of images on the covers, but every cover always has an image of a ghost detective from the 1940s with glowing eyes. Another example: An image type might be a different family crest or rune for an epic fantasy series. Though each individual image is different, being of the same type (rune, family crest, etc) the connection is made.

To be clear, you do not have to do ALL of this for the covers of a series. Only one, or a combination, or a slight alteration will work. The key is consistency. If every cover is completely different, nobody will know you have a series going. But if all the covers have at least one (and preferably more than one) aspect that is the same from book to book, your fans will be grateful.

So, if you understand how these things work in concert, then you will have a better way to communicate with your artist. You can let them know the exact layout beforehand which will, in turn, provide them with the boundaries that they get to work in. Boundaries are great things for all artists. It forces creativity and, if you let them play within those boundaries, the stuff they come up with will exceed your expectations.

Thank you Stuart! Next time, tune in for a discussion of how to contract and work with a cover artist.

Until next time-


Editing your manuscript

“If I’d had more time, this would have been shorter”*

As Janet Walden-West once observed, when The Lovely Lillian invites you to pen a guest blog post, well…here we are…


One of my favorite scenes in the old movie Amadeus is when Constanze has taken some of Mozart’s work to Salieri to consider him for a royal appointment. Salieri is overcome when he realizes that every page of music is an untouched original, perfect from the first “draft”. This, gentle reader, is not real life. (It wasn’t real life for Mozart and Salieri either, but it’s still a terrific screen scene!)

All good writers know that every first draft will become better and better with editing. In fact, one of the challenges for many writers can be to turn off “editor brain” and actually get the first draft of a manuscript completed. I have a friend who has written and re-written the first chapter of her novel many times. She simply can’t get it “perfect”, and so she can’t seem to continue. While one may debate the relative merits of “NaNaWriMo” (National Novel Writing Month), I believe one of their strengths is in their message of “just write—don’t edit” so that you can complete the first draft of your story (however short or long it may be), and then begin the work of revising and editing your manuscript.

But what is “editing”? Editing is, at its essence, the crafting of language, content, and style of your manuscript that allow the reader to forget they are reading words on a page and help them dive into the story itself.

I’m a natural-born editor. I spent six years learning the nuances of English grammar and diagramming sentences in jr high and high school. As an IT support person, I regularly point out split infinitives and dangling participles or mismatched nouns and verbs on the screen when I’m showing someone how to set tabs or create a table of contents. As a writer, I think this gives me a great advantage in crafting my stories with strong vocabulary and clear grammatical structure. But, as a writer, I know what I mean to say, or how I intend things to sound. Eventually, every writer needs someone else to read and edit their story—a fresh pair of eyes and perspective can be invaluable to the well-crafted success of the final version.

What, as an aspiring or professional writer, should you expect from an editor? It’s more than correct spelling and grammar, and as you venture into the world of editing, it’s helpful to know how people define their roles and their service toward the success of your story. There is a certain amount of flow among the different types of editing, and a good editor will often provide a mix of services. For instance, if you hire a proofreader, they should not neglect to point out a narrative structure problem that they notice, but it is not actually their job to do so.

Let’s take a look at some common editing services:

This is the most basic, and yet the most detailed service, in which a proofreader is checking your work for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and consistency throughout your work. This work is generally to make corrections, rather than stylistic changes. Proofing is typically done after other forms of editing and layout.

Copy editing
Copy editing, like proofreading, provides the word-for-word focus on language and grammar; but a copy editor is also looking for overall language, vocabulary, and language structure and style.

Line/Stylistic editing
A good editor does their best to leave the author’s unique narrative voice, or style, intact. Stylistic editing polishes that voice, providing the reader with the best possible experience from sentence to sentence so that as they read the manuscript, they get lost in the story. Specifically, stylistic editing is checking the language to clarify meaning, eliminate anachronisms or clichés, adjust the reading level and tone for your target audience, and smooth dialogue. Stylistic editing occurs at the sentence and paragraph level, adjusting syntax for better flow, smoothness, and how the sentence “sounds” in the reader’s mind.

Developmental/Substantive editing
A substantive or developmental editor works at the page or scene level, looking at your work as a whole, examining plot structure, character development, and story arc through the narrative structure, logical consistency, and organization. This editor may suggest changes/additional/deletions to entire paragraphs or sections of your story to improve the narrative flow.

Editorial/Manuscript review
An editor may provide a summary evaluation of your manuscript to highlight areas where changes may be needed. The editor will note weaknesses in your narrative structure and flow such as repetitive or ambiguous language, as well as faulty story structure, gaps in the narrative flow, or anything else that pulls the reader out of the story and into an awareness of reading words on a page.

Should I pay for an editor?
You-as-author should definitely take advantage of offers from knowledgeable friends, beta readers, and fellow writers to review your work. You could pay for editing services, and there are some excellent reasons to do so, such as if English is not your first language, or you have been unsuccessful in previously submitting your manuscript to an agent or publisher.

If you choose to work with a traditional or small-press publisher, they will provide an editor and most likely a separate proofreader for your manuscript.

We often hear the phrase “money flows to the author” as a warning against services that require fees toward publication. And you should indeed be wary of these kinds of services—Google is your friend for researching their legitimacy. However, if you choose to self-publish, then you need to recognize that you-as-author are publishing through you-as-publisher. And you-as-publisher will have many expenses that any traditional or small-press publisher would pay toward the successful publication of a manuscript. You-as-publisher will need to pay (with time or money) for many services, such as editing, proofreading, print and epub book layout, book cover, promotion, etc. I say “pay with time or money” because you may choose to do some of these yourself. And if you have the time to learn the available tools, and the skill to make your work look professional, then you can do many of these things yourself.

However, as a self-publisher, it is truly in your best interest to pay for at least one professional service of proofreading and/or editing. Again, you-as-author know what you mean to say in your manuscript, and no matter how carefully you read and edit, you may miss mistakes because your brain knows what it expects to see. You may also miss certain logical structural problems, such as four people getting on a boat at the end of one chapter and two getting off the boat at the beginning of the next chapter (true story).

One of my most recent editing projects has been the Lawless Lands: Tales from the Weird Frontier anthology of 20 short stories, coming out this summer from Falstaff Books. I’ll share an example of how important it is for many different people to review a manuscript. Every story was submitted by each author, who presumably provide a manuscript they believed to be their very best. Each story was edited by one of the anthology’s three editors, then returned to the author for a final draft. These final drafts were submitted to the publisher, who provided them to a proofreader, whose proofs were returned to the authors for “final-final” approval. All 20 author-approved “final-final” manuscripts were provided to the publisher to be prepared for print and epub galley proofs. When we received those proofs, I noticed on one of the stories that the subtitle had a mis-spelling. This was after the author, editor, proofreader, and publisher had all reviewed this manuscript and signed off on it. But when I turned the page of the galley proofs, the error “jumped” out and caught my attention. I am sure my co-editors and some of the authors may have found similar last-minute corrections on one or two pages. There is a legend that one of the large publishing houses has long promised a million-dollar reward for the first book published without a single error—they have never paid out.

So the purpose of editing is not necessarily to make your manuscript error-free, although of course we all strive for that goal. The underlying purpose is to provide that smooth ride for the reader to be drawn in to your story, and not to consciously notice the words on the page while they are engaged in reading it. An editor will help you-as-author craft and polish your story to be the best that it can be.

Margaret S. McGraw is co-editor, with Misty Massey and Emily Leverett, of two anthologies of short stories about the wildest West that never was: Weird Wild West (eSpec Books, 2015) and the upcoming Lawless Lands: Tales from the Weird Frontier (Falstaff Books, 2017). Margaret writes fantasy and science fiction; blogs about prompt-writing, con reviews, and book reviews at; blogs about the journey of writing and publishing at; and edits fiction, academic, and technical writing. Find Margaret on Facebook or Goodreads as “Margaret S. McGraw” or follow her on Twitter @MargaretSMcGraw.

How to write a book- from idea to finished rough draft

from Fritz Lang’s seminal 1927 science-fiction classic Metropolis

Gentle reader, this post will start a series on how to write and publish a book.

I know, I know. It’s a big topic. I’ve invited guest bloggers for part of this journey to speak about their areas of expertise.

This first post is about how to get from an idea to a completed rough draft. I will share my process, such as it is, in hopes that it helps someone else in their journey.

How do you start a book? Well, you start with an idea.

How do you transmogrify that idea into a fully-fledged story? That’s the hard part. Avoid the techniques in the picture above! Some people just start writing, no idea of where the story will head- these persons are referred to as pantsers. Plotters start with an outline of places, story arc, characters, and outline everything before they start writing. Lots of writers float between these goalposts.

My personal process is a hybrid version of the plotters and pantsers. I will start with an outline, like for the first three chapters, and I have an idea where I want my story to end- the big climactic scene. Once my world building takes hold, I need to revise and change things a lot, which is why over the years I realized it makes no sense for me to outline anything more that the first bits of story. My outline is a work in progress, and is a combination style sheet and novel scaffolding  than I can use as a basis for a synopsis if needed. For me, the outline serves as a repository of all things plot, world-building, character and setting.

Once my outline is started, my creative juices are flowing and I start writing. I don’t worry too much about anything at this point other than getting the words from my head onto the page. I tend to write sparsely at this stage with just enough detail to define setting, time, place, and character.

The next part is where I hit the rapids.  I typically produce roughly 10,000 words before the creativity starts to wane. Doubts creep in. I question my hypothesis, my choice of character, my choices for anything, and in general believe all that I have written at this point is a pile of garbage. Which is sometimes true.

WHATEVER YOU DO DO NOT HIT DELETE. This is the part where the harder work for me kicks in- here is where I go back to my original outline, my original world-building, my original character sketches, and get everything back on track, reform the characters and plot to conform to my original idea, as I have invariably gone off the trails by this point in the work. This helps me refocus and plow through the next 30000 words or so. Then I write the ending- not because my story ends at 40000 words, but because I need to see the finish line and this propels me forward the rest of the way.

After this scaffolding is complete, then I go back and fill out the rough draft with details, correct POV, fixing plot and character issues, which adds another 10000-15000 words.

Then I take pivotal points in the story, write them out on index cards, and rearrange them into HOW I WANT THE STORY TO BE. Of note- the pivotal points may not be an entire scene- it may be a conversation with a character, or a particular plot point. These go on the index cards as well. I’m not Mozart, so there is a LOT of rearranging and gnashing of teeth to get the pacing right with the story choices made at this juncture.

Then I start the first edit.

Seems like a bit of work just to say I am done with my rough draft, but I cannot slog through the mess of a NANOWRIMO type of verbal regurgitation, and I stall out and just keep going back and editing stuff if I don’t force myself  to plow ahead.

THE key for me, at the end of a rough draft, is to know the motivations and conflicts of my main characters, have the plot arc set, with setting and tone and voice trending in the right directions.

All the rest, I fix with editing. I also have a decent rough draft to work with, so my editing is *faster* than if I just verbally vomited on the page and try to sort it out.

Your mileage may vary.

Next post, I talk about how I keep all these things sorted until I can put them into my final document— organizing your workflow up next!

Writing today, then gardening

Hello all!
Today I am deep in the part of a writing project I call “Hold on and just keep going.” It’s the part where all my ideas and characters try to pull me off task, onto tangents and limbs that my story cannot support, a deep dark hole of temptations that I must resist. I want to have this particular project done for my writers retreat in early June, so time is of the essence.
To help with attaining this goal, I am really trying to stick to an outline for the first time ever.
I will let you know how it goes.
Later, I will do a bit of gardeniing whilst my story is marinating in the back of my brain.
Have a lovely day in your part of the world, and if you have any insights to share on getting through the rough draft, share them int the comments.
Until next time-

Researching historical facts

Gentle reader, if you have read my novel Prodigal Spell, you know I write historical fantasy. This post is directed mostly to fledgling writers out there, and it is a warning. Ignore historical accuracy at your own peril. Research is necessary, but is its own cruel challenge.

My novel is set in 1790s London and the Caribbean. It would be ludicrous to NOT have slavery present- my heroine is a landowner. I researched the slave trade, transport routes, auction sites, the whole sordid mess because I wanted as much historical accuracy as my fantasy novel could support. My London scenes were researched as thouroughly- I actually cut two scenes set in the British Museum because I could not verify if the  real- world exhibits I included in my fictional world were on display at the time. Unable to crystallize those facts, the scenes were removed in the final edits.

Readers who digest historical works want accuracy. If I pick up a Cold War spy novel, it better have actual adversaries in the world-building. If there is a Colonial work about witch trials in the American colonies, I subconsciously look for a reference to the Salem Witch trials. It matters, and how you incorporate it into your stories is where to be clever.

Here is where historical accuracy can become a whirlpool to the center of the Earth; an author can spend so much time researching, agonizing over the tiniest details, that the writing lays discarded. I heard that siren call myself and lost a good three months of productivity. I am a slow writer, so three months of lost words is like three novels worth of time for others:)f

Too little facts, and the book floats in its own sphere, not quite here and not grounded. The other end of the spectrum is just as faulty- too much real-world and the book is a history book disguised as a work of fiction. Few authors can pull this off well.

My process is thusly- first, I research the general time period and “all the things I think I know” and keep these web clippings in one place. I use OneNote and Evernote for this, but as I move to Scrivener, it may make sense to have this in the WIP binder. Next, I outline the work. My outlines are not as robust as some and I add as I write, but it is a good way to know where my thoughts land. Lastly, I keep a running list of things I ponder as I outline or write, and research JUST THOSE THINGS as I am writing. Too much free-form reading while creating and I am lost. Once my rough draft is complete, I let it marinate for several days before starting the editing process. As I edit, again I track down details and incorporate them into the story, so that I feel comfortable by the end of the first edits that I have the historical details correctly reflected in the work. None of this is foolproof, and every time I have a beta reader for my work there is always a detail that needs fleshing out, but they are few. This process works for me to balance the writing and researching- your mileage may vary.

Don’t let the idea of researching a topic deter you from writing a novel. Have a plan, make a plan, and stick to it. That is the best writing advice for any stage of writing. 

I hope this helps any newbies out there!

A Bientôt, 


It’s not all Fabio and Bodice-Rippers by Janet Walden-West

Today, gentle reader, you are in for a treat! The incomparable Janet Walden-West agreed to stop by and talk about romance. Thank you, Janet!

Know what happens when you show up to a spec fic critique session with a romantic suspense excerpt in hand? You’re branded for life, and eventually, The Lovely Lillian asks you to write about what goes into a modern romance or romantic sub-plot.

Since one does not argue with The Lovely Lillian, here goes.


A simple seven-letter word. But on closer inspection, one that belongs up there with sex, politics, and religion as far as topics that can lead to heated, unpleasant disagreements ‘round the dinner table.

Why it’s a polarizing topic, at least in literature and media, is problematic. Maybe because many people equate romance with sex and Americans still see sex as “naughty.” Maybe because it’s largely a genre written by female-identifying people, for female-identifying people. Whatever the reason, romance gets an unfair treatment—“unrealistic,” “mommy porn,” “bodice rippers,” “anti-feminist propaganda,”  “garbage for bored housewives” are a few of the accusations leveled at the genre, usually accompanied by a disdainful eye roll or worse from co-workers, that random guy on the subway who keeps reading over your shoulder, and other writers.

Yet romance is a billion dollar a year industry, and accounts for a major percentage of the adult fiction market—far more than the two closest genre contenders, Mystery and Suspense/Thriller, and close to the entire combined sales of General Fiction.

And that doesn’t factor in the books that have a romance of some form as a major subplot. The Fault in Our Stars and You Before Me? Neener-neener, buddy—tragic romances. The Princess Bride? Romance. The Maltese Falcon? Romantic subplot. Star Wars? Major romantic subplot.


Which is the long way around of saying a lot of people read romance, and a lot of people write it, so if you’re considering dipping your authorial toes in? You go for it, Sunshine.

But check any outdated assumptions at the door because the romance readers and writers of 2016 expect quality writing, a balanced approach, and thoughtful plots. I’ll preface this list by saying this is my take on what constitutes a successful romance, keeping in mind there are always outliers at either extreme that throw off the curve, so if you want to search out books with awful gender stereotypes and dino-porn to wave as proof I’m wrong, you’ll eventually find them.

However, tossing aside those outliers and oddities, what points are the baseline for modern romance?

#1) Sex isn’t romance. Let’s get that assumption out of the way up front. Romance may contain elements of sexual attraction (but not always) and implied or explicit sex scenes, but sex and romance are two different creatures. If you don’t believe me, check out the Erotic Romance sub-genre. Slapping a gratuitous “Insert Tab A in Slot B” scene, or series of scenes in a manuscript, does not a romance make.

At its core romance is about emotions—the emotional connection between two (or more) people. Sex may or may not enter into the story.

#2) Respect is key. Basically, the modern romance is the opposite of the clichéd bodice ripper, with its thinly veiled sexual assault (often served with a side of misogyny, racism, and interpersonal deceit) dressed up as the prelude to a romantic partnership.

Nowadays, both people bring something to the relationship and it’s a true partnership between equal, capable adults.

Because we are talking about a relationship between equals, consent is also key. And consent isn’t limited to intercourse.  Consent can include something as overlooked but problematic as replacing the swoop-in-for-a-kiss trope with asking first. Young Adult and New Adult romance writers nail making consent normal and sexy. One partner doesn’t get to physically intimidate the other, either, by preventing access or denying them the ability to walk away from a conversation.  Neither character gets away with the outdated “I’ll make decision your decisions, for your own good” trope, either.

#3) Autonomy is important. Character agency is important. Some writers and readers maintain more traditional gender roles, but they do it with that equality in mind. Other writers turn roles on their ears, with fascinating twists. Now, the White Knight may be the virgin, and after the Damsel saves him, she recruits the dragon and executes plans to win over the kingdom with her PR team.

#4) Plot is important. “Romance is formulaic” gets trotted out as the reason the genre doesn’t deserve respect. Now, romance readers do enjoy their tropes, and the Romance Writers of America defines a romance as “a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” But lets be real. All genres have certain expectations as far as plot and resolution. Cozy mysteries, pulp, thrillers, fantasy, and science fiction all have familiar, readily defined patterns. Readers look for those patterns.

However, romance isn’t all about over-the-top heroes swooping in to claim the heroine’s virginity and make her life whole.

Now, the hero or heroine is busy taking care of business (sure, that kind of business, too), as opposed to pining away, waiting for a mate to give their life, and the story, meaning.  Thus, sub-genres abound.  Contemporary Romance, Romantic Suspense, Inspirational, Historical, YA/NA, and Paranormal all have plot requirements, aside from a Happily Ever After or Happily For Now.

#5) Diversity, baby. What surprised, and thrilled, me was the level of inclusiveness and diversity present in romance now. There’s a lot of talk now about the trend towards diversity in publishing. I don’t believe it’s a passing trend, but more a long overdue reflection of the world around us. Many, many writers feature main characters of multiple races, nationalities, religions, sexual orientations, ages, physical abilities, and neurodiversity. More agents and publishers are seeking out marginalized writers, to write #ownvoice characters. LGBTIA+ characters are gaining ground, and not as simply so-called issue or message stories. One of my favorite, most poignant reads this year featured an asexual protagonist, and the romance level and sheer feels were off the charts.

I hope my ramblings at least cause a few people to reconsider the intelligence of devoted romance readers and talent of romance writers. Maybe someone will even get the urge to try penning a romance or fitting a romantic relationship of whatever flavor into their other genre WIP. At the very least, exploring and learning to write realistic emotions serves any writer well, whether it’s in the quest for a happily ever after, the throat-tightening terror of a hacker proven right in their doomsday scenario, or the righteous vengeance of a futuristic space knight ending a tyrant’s rule.

For a more complete overview of the romance world and opportunities for diverse manuscripts and writers, check out the links below.

The Romance Writers of America

Rainbow Chapter of RWA

Cultural, Interracial, and Multicultural Chapter of RWA

Write in the Margins-Helping Underrepresented Stories Find Their Place

The Mad Rush to the End

Gentle readers, I hope you have had a lovely thanksgiving break. For me, Thanksgiving is not only the juggling act of family and work, but also the signal for the mad rush to the end, that rising lump in my throat of all the goals I have set for the year that fell to the march of time.

Yep- I found a list of my writing goals for 2016.

This year, it is not so bad- I have met 72% of my goals. I am proud of this achievement, but as I do every year, I will go for a run, and think about ways I can meet 100% of my goals. In the meantime, I will try not to rush to put words to paper, thinking it means a goal achieved, when really, I need GOOD words on paper to feel accomplished.

Do not join me in the mad rush- it is a hazardous swamp of exploding ideas, story tangents, and dead ends. Stay calm, and write at your own pace. Goals are great, but do not sacrifice quality for quantity. That is one goal I hope I keep for the remainder of the year.

Until next time-