In this week’s 5 On interview, author Che Gilson discusses what she as an unagented author learned to look for in publishing contracts, designing your own cover art, the necessity of continually creating new material, and more.
Che Gilson is the author of Avigon and Avigon: Gods and Demons, graphic novels published by Image Comics and illustrated by Jimmie Robinson. She went on to write Dark Moon Diary volumes 1 and 2, illustrated by Brett Uher and published by TOKYOPOP. Her short fiction has appeared in the e-zines Drops of Crimson and twice in Luna Station Quarterly. Most recently, her urban fantasy novella Carmine Rojas: Dog Fight was released August 2014 from Black Opal Books. Tea Times Three, a contemporary fantasy, is due out May 2016, also from Black Opal. Che is an artist and attended Savannah College of Art and Design, majoring in sequential art. She likes to write, draw, and read, and she collects Asian ball-jointed dolls.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: You post your artwork on DeviantArt.com, but you tend not to include your own artwork in what you write, you’ve said, because it either doesn’t reflect the tone of the story, or—when it comes to producing a highly illustrated middle-grade or children’s book—you don’t have the confidence you’d like to have in your artistic ability. But you did recently say you were interested in, and sounding somewhat confident about, the idea of someday illustrating an adult novel to submit to your publisher. Have you moved any closer to doing that? (And if not, what’s stopping you?)
CHE GILSON: I still haven’t moved toward an illustrated novel. The idea for an illustrated novel for adults came from Japanese light novels. They often have illustrations by manga artists. One of the reviews for Carmine Rojas: Dog Fight compared the book to a light novel, and it got me thinking, “Why not?” But I haven’t really come up with an idea for a novel, and the confidence in my art skills wavers. I think I’d have to come up with an idea for a book and the artwork at the same time.
When I write I often visualize the characters as looking like real people, but my art is anime/cartoony in style, so in the past when I’ve tried to draw my characters they never look like they do in my head and I hate them. So if I really wanted to illustrate something, the text and art would have to match. This is strange to say, but I would have to imagine the book looking like a comic book or an anime in my head to be able to draw the characters from it. I’m not sure how to make this happen, and it hasn’t happened yet.
“Switching fonts helps me see the book differently and catch mistakes I wouldn’t normally see,” you’ve said about editing, and I agree completely. (Fonts also have the magical ability to change the perception of the quality of the writing—I’m convinced nothing reads well in Calibri.) What are some other habits that are part of your editing routine?
My biggest habit is probably writing my manuscripts longhand. I’ve tried a couple of times to compose on the computer, but I can’t. I don’t type quickly (or well) so composing something as complex and creative as prose completely eludes me. I do compose nonfiction on the computer, and for some reason that works. But once everything is typed, I edit on the computer. Usually a long time has gone by between me writing the manuscript in longhand and reading it again as a typed document, so I have the time and space to give it fresher eyes. I also try to get some beta readers to go over the book or story. Then I just work on it, using or discarding beta reader suggestions as needed and reworking on the computer.
In February you tweeted, “Does my #MG #book have to have a likeable character??” What are your feelings about readers (whether casual or professional) needing a likeable character?
I don’t think a character has to be likeable, but they do need to be compelling. And I have to admit that I don’t like middle-grade novels whose kid protagonist is an insufferable asshole. I have put down several middle-grade books because the main character is an unbearable human being at the age of twelve. Without good reason, I might add! The horrible child characters I’ve read come from stable, happy homes, but they are often shallow, and snarky without cause.
Snark for no reason is one of my biggest pet peeves in child and adult characters. It seems that pure snark has become a character trait, but it’s not a reasonable one. No one can function in the world just being snarky without sincerely hurting other people’s feelings, and then themselves when people get sick of dealing with them. There needs to be more to an unlikeable character; there need to be reasons behind their attitudes. Are they feeling out of control? Do they think being mean is the only way to get what they want? That’s when a character starts to become compelling—when they have an internal emotional life that informs their actions.
I also think part of the problem for me is that you hope kids aren’t horrible jaded asses, that they will grow and learn and maybe turn into decent adults. Whereas in adult fiction the characters are the end result of their life experiences, so even if you don’t see it there is often a reason they turned out to be so horrible. But even horrible characters have backgrounds and reasons/justifications, and good writers will be able to show that depth. That’s when a cardboard villain or anti-hero becomes a character you root for, or love to hate.
Your goal for 2015 was “better.” Everything better—characters, world-building, plots, magic systems. “My theory of art has always been that quantity will eventually lead to quality. But now I’m not so sure,” you wrote in a blog post. What have you learned in the last year about what it takes for you to improve, about quantity and its relationship to quality?
Sadly, not much. Too much of 2015 was spent in upheaval. I never achieved either the quantity or the quality I was hoping for. I might have to use that for 2016, which seems to be going a little better.
I might have to resign myself to the fact that I write cozy fantasy … but maybe someday I’ll put it all together into something grand and imaginative. I read a lot of books that I wish I could have conceived. Most of what I have published so far falls into urban fantasy and contemporary fantasy. They are stories that take place in a slightly altered modern-day setting where most things are the same but for a magical addition. Building an immersive world from the ground up for a secondary-world fantasy takes either a lot of planning or a good deal of exploratory writing. I have some ideas for secondary worlds, but nothing that feels as immersive as I’d like and nothing that has a plot, so far. China Miéville is one author whose secondary worlds are brilliant! The Bas-Lag books beginning with Perdido Street Station are wildly original. Another is the Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy by D. M. Cornish. He created a sprawling immersive world in the books, with appendices that are almost as long as the story. As much as I admire them, I haven’t been able to come up with a secondary world of my own that I’m entirely satisfied with.
But I still believe in quantity! And that it does eventually add up to quality. It almost can’t be helped. You keep doing things and trying again, and maybe it gets a little better each time.
I’ve found that consistency is the key to quantity. Though there are definitely a lot of sprinters in the world of authors—people who can write 5,000 or more words at a time—I shoot for a bare minimum of 500 words or so. If I can write a little bit every day, it adds up. I think what I’ve seen improve most is simply an ability to keep writing. A better flow of words. Editing is often where the majority of real wordcraft happens, but to get to that stage you have to get words on paper (or on screen). But it’s still nice to see what your subconscious can conjure as you write. And after a certain point, at least, I find myself making slightly better word choices. Or being able to put a note in the margin when I see something going wrong, so I can go back and correct it in editing. I don’t stop as I go to fix things a lot, but it’s important that you know something is wrong and that you know how to fix it.
You said of writing Carmine Rojas: Dog Fight, which you described as “the Michael Bay of novellas” that “exists solely for gleeful violent explosion action fun”: “I tried to throw in everything I thought would be interesting and fun, and you’re kind of not supposed to do that, anymore, because now it’s appropriation.” You were referring to, among others, Yakuza (Japanese) and skinwalker (Navajo) characters. For someone whose writing experience has probably always involved creating a diverse cast of characters, how do you deal now with appropriation (and avoiding it)? Do you spend more time on research, or have you cultivated a network of advisers of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds who can help with authenticity (or something else)?
Carmine is probably not a great example of diversity. I really just wanted to do something cool and violent.
I wrote Carmine while I was in the middle of writing Tea Times Three, a cozy fantasy about witches who move to a small town and open a magical tea shop to the horror of the local pastor. I call it an “eccentric British village comedy” even though it doesn’t take place in England. It’s the sort of book in which nothing bad is going to happen, and there are only mild swear words. At some point I just couldn’t stand it anymore, and I needed to write something hyper-violent with a lot of f-bombs and explosions, and that’s how Carmine was born.
For Carmine I did very little research. The saving grace of Carmine is probably that the characters aren’t stereotypes. I made the gang members sympathetic, and Carmine herself is the opposite of the “spicy Latina” trope. She’s physically large and powerful and not at all sexy. Ooljee, the Navajo skinwalker, ended up being a goofball (which is another trope altogether) with a dark undercurrent rather than the common “mystic” or “noble savage” tropes. At the same time, though, none of their cultures is explored in any depth, though they are mentioned.
Avoiding appropriation is tough. My personal approach in Carmine was just to try to make each character an individual person who could exist outside of Carmine’s story. There is a sense that everyone has a life outside the story and that no one is there solely to be a prop. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded. I really haven’t received much of a critique on Carmine from insiders in the cultures I wrote, and I’m sure there is a lot wrong. At least, I’m assuming so…. But I would never suggest that anyone do what I did. If I avoided a minefield, it’s by luck more than anything else. Do your research!
5 on Publishing
For Carmine’s cover you wanted an illustration different from what you typically create, so you found a clip-art wolf and designed around it. Many writers don’t have even basic design skills in addition to writing skills, but they’ll still try to create their own covers. (Guilty! I did this in 2007, and it was obvious.) There are of course plenty of book cover designers online, and many are reasonably priced—one of my personal favorites, and the designer of my currently existing covers, is Kat Mellon Writing +
Design—but “reasonable” is always relative.
I can’t help being irritated by the (unavoidable) fact that if you want to be a successful self-published author, the more money you have, the better your chances. So, if there’s a way to do it well for less money, I want to know what it is. What advice would you give people looking for the best possible—but also cost-effective—original book cover?
I wish I could help authors more with this! I scratch-built the Carmine cover precisely because I had a vision and I knew I could execute it. I also went to art school, and so I have at least some skills other people might not. I didn’t even look at cover template sites.
I’m sure there is a mixed approach, especially if you just want the artwork and can add text to the cover yourself. Probably the best resource out there is the library! There are lots and lots of books on graphic design out there. I can’t recommend any in particular since I didn’t use a book to help me, but I did search for a number on Amazon before I started on the Carmine cover and found a wealth of books just by searching “graphic design for covers.” The books I added to my wish list, but haven’t bought yet, are By Its Cover: Modern American Cover Design by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberge and Chip Kidd: Book One: Work 1986–2006 by Chip Kidd. I still want those two!
My main resource was the Book Cover Archive. It’s basically page after page of book covers, and it proved to be great inspiration. Also, study covers you like and look closely at where the artist has placed the elements. Where is the art centered? Sometimes a cover has a character from the book front and center staring out at the reader. Other times the image will be composed off-center. It all depends on where you want the eye to be drawn. Where the eye falls first is the focus. How big should the text be? This depends on the design. It can take up the entire cover or fit nicely in the art.
One of the things you’ll want to do is to shrink your cover to the size of an Amazon thumbnail and see if the title can still be read. I can’t stress that enough. The title needs to be seen at all different sizes. It can be art or text, depending on what the book is about and the cover artist’s design aesthetics. Some covers feature hand lettering, while others are about an image. A lot of genre books focus strongly on an exciting image or character for the cover, but literary novels often feature hand lettering as a the main “image.” The main design element is up to you and your cover artist. Just make sure that art and text don’t fight each other.
Taking all the larger lessons you’ve learned in your experiences with publishing, which have been most valuable/which would you use to guide those new to the process?
I think what I never anticipated, and what very few authors ever speak on, is that it does not matter what you have done in the past. When Dark Moon Diary came out, I thought I had it made. I thought I’d be able to get more jobs writing comics, and I thought, “Now I’m a known quantity, now I’ll continue getting work on the basis of these books.” And I was completely wrong.
I heard Jeff VanderMeer speak at World Fantasy, and he said that every book, every project, is like starting over. That resonated with me so deeply because that had been my experience in comics. The adage is that a career is a slow rise, not that you begin from zero with everything. I have found this is pretty much true. So I guess my advice is keep writing and getting new books out. If you are lucky enough to have an agent, then it might not be so bad. They will be able to connect you with editors and publishers.
But even books from major publishers get dropped if they don’t sell. If you’re self-publishing it helps to have a back catalogue, but readers are looking for the next book. The new book. And getting new books out is the only way to build on success. However, a career in publishing is not a slow rise on a chart. It’s more backtracking and circling, and prior successes don’t always mean future success.
Considering what you said about traditional publishing—“even books from major publishers get dropped if they don’t sell”—and what’s being said in the general writing community about what traditional publishers don’t necessarily do for unknown authors anymore, in terms of marketing and promotion, what draws you to the traditional avenue?
I really want to break into middle-grade publishing, and for that the traditional route is the only way to go. Middle-grade books aren’t necessarily sold directly to their readers; they are sold to book fairs and school libraries and parents. Children don’t automatically have an e-reader and a Paypal account to buy books off the internet. Children’s books are their own animal in a lot of ways, and the only way to succeed in that market is to go through traditional publishing.
Another thing to consider is: How much time do you really want to spend marketing, and are you any good at it? Self-publishing requires a commitment to marketing and self-promotion. You really do have to do it all. A traditional publisher may not invest a huge amount into the promotion and marketing of a new author, or even a mid-list author, but there will still be help. And there will be help not only from the publisher but from your agent, as well. They will have suggestions for you; connect you with magazines, blogs, places to be interviewed; and submit your book for review in places normally closed to the self-publisher.
You published with TOKYOPOP, and now you’re with Black Opal. Having been presented with contracts from two different companies, what have you learned about what should be included in contracts, what to be wary of in contracts, or anything else someone without an agent signing their first publishing contract should know?
This is where having an agent will sincerely help any author. But I’ll give it a go.
TOKYOPOP’s contract was pages and pages of legalese and signed over a lot of rights to the company. I signed it knowing what I was giving up and what I was getting in return—my book in bookstores. Black Opal’s contract is ten pages of very clear rights and royalties. I think if you are going with a small press and don’t have an agent or lawyer to turn to, the things to look for are:
- Does the publisher want to charge you for anything? Editing, publicity, cover art, those are all red flags.
- Is the contract for a single book, or do they want more? You may not be comfortable signing for multiple books.
- Do your rights revert back to you in the event that you leave the publisher, and if so, when?
- Do you retain the full copyrights for your work?
- Are there any non-disclosure agreements? There’s really no reason for a small press to ask for something like that.
- What are the royalty percentages? For a small press, one of the incentives is that you should be getting a pretty good royalty for ebooks, usually around 40 percent or so.
- Are audiobooks mentioned? Is that even going to be an issue?
- Believe me when I say: You do not have to worry about movie rights. First-time authors are often very concerned about the movie rights. But honestly, no one is going to make your book into a movie. By all means, fight to keep them if you want. But that’s the last thing you should be thinking about.
And reach out to other authors published by that press. Ask them if they are satisfied. Just do it privately. Most authors will happily tell you the ins and outs. There are also forums like Absolute Write, which has a “Bewares and Recommendations” thread that is invaluable. Another great site is Predators & Editors, which provides information about presses large and small and warns about places to avoid.
Back in 2007 when I was looking for blurbs for my first novel, I made the horrifyingly embarrassing mistake of contacting a publisher to ask for a blurb from an author I had no idea had been dead for over ten years. (Who it was, I’ll never tell.) Naturally, this taught me to research just about everything before contacting anyone. Have you made any embarrassing mistakes in your efforts to promote or publish your work that ended up teaching you something seemingly small, but in fact significant?
Not yet! Though I have made a few gaffes in the submission process. When I was submitting my middle-grade novel The Bird Fairies to agents, I kept a spreadsheet and was so pleased that I was so organized. However, that didn’t stop me from querying a few agents twice. Which is a terrible mistake! I’m 99 percent sure that the agents who got the repeat queries just ignored them. My only hope is that by the time I next query a book they will have forgotten all about me. Luckily no one replied to the repeats.
And one time an online magazine replied to my short story submission with a very nice rejection that included, “You left the track changes on and we can see all the comments in the document.” Luckily they weren’t horrible comments, just all the notes from my beta readers, but it was still an embarrassing thing to have forgotten. I’ll probably not send them anything ever again. Make sure you check your work—and turn off the track changes!
Thank you, Che.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the post-Roe v. Wade novel The Age of the Child, called a novel “for right now” and “scathing social commentary.” She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.