The Idea Behind More than Magic

A lot of people have asked me where I got the idea for More than Magic.  It’s a very complicated answer because it came from multiple ideas that all fell together one day.  I wrote a short version of this for a guest blog post once, but didn’t go as in depth as I would have liked.  But, since this is my blog and I can get as wordy and long-winded as I like, I’m going to.

Disclaimer: This is going to be long.

That said, if you’re interested and have some time, grab a drink and settle in.  There are two reasons that I want to tell the full story.  One, is that I’m a writer and I like to tell stories.  Why not tell mine?  The other reason, is that I think this story can serve as (I hope) inspiration to aspiring authors.  More than Magic took a long, long time.  A lot of things I did all sort of culminated in the creation of it, some of which I never imagined going anywhere.  If I had read a story like what you’re about to read back when I was struggling to write, I might have felt better.  I’ve also got some advice sprinkled in here too.  If you do take the time to read this, I hope it gives your muse a little push.

Let’s start at the very, very beginning.  When I grew up I wanted to be an artist.  That was my answer from the time I was two, until I was somewhere in the middle of elementary school. Honestly, I think that’s only because I didn’t comprehend what an author was.  It’s hard to want to become an author when you can’t read or write yet.  I was six or seven when I wrote my first story.  As I recall it was about a wolf family that went to have a picnic by a waterfall.  I found it years and years later, and it was significantly worse than I remembered.  But, at the time, I thought it was a masterpiece.  After that, I was constantly making up stories.  When my friends and I played we came up with long, complicated plotlines and characters.  A “story” would last weeks and weeks until we reached a conclusion.  Then we started all over again with a new plot.  Some got so complicated that we even wrote biographies for our characters and took notes.

I was in fifth grade when I got my first real taste of being published.  We spent the better part of the year writing, editing, and illustrating our own books.  When we were done, someone took them and actually printed hardcover copies.  It was very, very cool to hold my book in my hands.

Then, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I discovered fanfiction.  I’m an advocate for fanfiction, but that’s another long-winded post for another day.  Needless to say, I wrote like a fiend.  Most of it never saw the light of day, but I wrote and wrote and wrote.  Eventually I did start posting some.  I couldn’t get enough of seeing positive comments.  The idea that someone had read what I wrote and liked it was just intoxicating.  I tried to write my own work and was left with a number of half-started, unfinished stories that never went anywhere.  I was in high school when NaNoWriMo was born.  I considered attempting it every year, but high school was busy and 50k words was daunting.  Believe it or not, my stories didn’t get as long back then.  A large part of my novel-writing problem was length.  Writing a 10k word short story is nothing like a 100k novel.  True, you don’t know until you try.  But getting there is the hard part.

I started my first “real” book when I was in my first semester of college.  It was a sci-fi about colonizing a new planet.  I actually worked on it for a couple of years.  It was the longest – both in terms of word count and time spent – that I had ever worked on something original.  I even had a friend reading and editing it with me.  Around the same time I got the inspiration for a fantasy novel with elves.  Like the sci-fi, I spent a lot of time on it.  Eventually the elf novel overtook the sci-fi.  My second year of college I started taking creative writing classes.  I even submitted chapters and a short prequel to my elf story for critique. 

Now, I’m going to jump back a few years back to high school.  The internet.  When I was in high school “social networking” was how many friends you had on LiveJournal and how many animated gifs were on your MySpace page.  I was a member of a couple of forums and followed a couple of webcomics.  I wanted to get on the bandwagon and start a website too.  So, as I was going through college working on my elves and my sci-fi, I was also trying to start my own website.  My “brilliant” websites came and went and never really got off the ground.  I made and ran a couple of forums for MMO guilds I was in, but I had a knack for joining small guilds that eventually broke up.

Back to my early college years.  Let’s date myself: 2005.  While in the middle of pointy-ears and spaceships, I decided to make a webcomic!  That was the website I needed!  I was a writer!  I could easily write a plotline and dialogue for a comic.  Now the thing about comics is that they’re long.  They span in arcs and are intended to keep going.  One of the aforementioned webcomics that I followed in high school is still going!  I read it every morning!  And let’s not forget paper comics that I have been around for decades and decades.  So, I needed to design a plot that would stand the test of time as well.

I hit upon what I thought was perfect: a magical inn.  The main cast would be the people who work there.  Then I had countless possibilities for story arcs based on the guests coming in and out.  Guests could be recurring secondary characters, I could have comedy, fights, and an ever changing cast.  So, I set to work creating it.

The comic was going to center around a girl who stumbled onto the inn while looking for a job.  The inn was owned by a witch who (hey, this part might sound familiar!) realized that the girl was a witch too, she just didn’t know it yet!  Yadda yadda, she got hired and dove headfirst into a magical world.  Since this was a comic, I wanted to have lots of fun visual things.  I love throwing tiny “easter egg” details in (I do it when I write too) so I wanted to leave myself as much room to play around as I could.  This led to the creation of elementals.  I decided that fire and water elementals would be the most fun to draw, so I went with it.  I added familiars and werewolves so that I could have more than just ‘humans’ in the cast.

I wrote biographies and detailed descriptions for each character.  I named them, gave them birthdays, and even filled out a ten page “Character Planning Guide” I’d gotten from one of my creative writing classes for each character.  It’s worth mentioning that some of these characters survived all the way into Semester Aboard.  Jen, naturally, although her name changed.  Dani(o), Char(lie), T(ethy)S, and Mariana still have their original names (and nicknames).  All four are the same kinds of magical beings they were to begin with, TS’ siblings all have the same names as well, and our happy couple have been together since day one.  Thomas’ name and history changed quite a few times, but at the core he was always the same too.  Rak entered the story much earlier, with the same name as well.  Jon was originally married to the inn-keeper and Fend was flapping around in one of the first comics.

When I was satisfied with my characters I wrote a summary for a good six months worth of comics and wrote a script for the first twenty.  I was ready to go!

There’s just one problem: I can’t draw.

Looking back, I think I could have done it.  If you go to a popular webcomic and click “First Comic” the difference in skill is usually astounding.  I think that if I had sat down and spent a year or two drawing, then my skills would have really improved.  In fact, some comics don’t even have good art!  There are very popular, successful webcomics made with clip-art or sloppily drawn in MS Paint.  But, I was too harsh a critic of myself.  I spent hours and hours drawing the very first comic and was never happy enough to post it.

I gave up on the comic idea, but couldn’t shake the world I had created.  I loved my story, even more: I loved my characters.  I tried to turn it into a book, but somehow it didn’t work.  I had tried to make the plot so open ended that I struggled to bring it all together.  Half of the story I had planned out was too heavily dependant on visual effects.  So, I tried something else.

I took Jen and the others away from the inn and took them to high school.  As a side note, I find it interesting that my characters are always a year or two younger than I am at the time I write it.  Jen was a senior in high school right after I graduated, and when Semester Aboard begins Jen has just finished her third year of college.

Nothing worked.  I must have started a dozen different “books”.  In some, Jen already knew the gang, just not that they were magical.  In others she hadn’t met them yet.  But, it all went the same way.  Jen gets nosy, Jen learns about magic, and…and dead end.  I just couldn’t figure out what sort of a conflict to bring in.  I couldn’t advance the plot any further.  I wanted, desperately, to write Jen and the gang’s story, but I couldn’t.  So, I tucked them away into a folder somewhere on my computer and moved on.

It’s worth mentioning here, that I’ve figured out my problem.  I was trying to force it.  You know how it goes.  You try to force the key into a lock and it breaks.  You try to force your kid to love ballet and she discovers karate.  I was trying to force my characters into a plot and a setting.  I assumed that, as the author, I could create great characters and stick them into any old plot.  But, I couldn’t.  Remember that.  If you have characters you love, but the story won’t come, maybe that isn’t their story.  It might sound a little crazy, but it’s true.

I went on with life.  My elf plot advanced and stalled, other ideas came and went, and I wrote an embarrassing amount of fanfiction.  Somewhere along the way, my work got a little popular.  I was never one of the greats, but every once in a while someone would recommend one of my fics.  Some people were reading my newer stories just because I was the one who had written them.  I even had people begging for the next chapter in multi-chapter fics.

All the while, the More than Magic crew stayed tucked away in a folder.

Then, in 2007 (two years after I created/abandoned Jen and the others) I went on Semester at Sea.  I cannot, cannot, cannot recommend it enough.  It was, no contest, the best summer of my life and it really did change me.  Granted, it wasn’t literally magical, but it came pretty damn close.

Let me take another side note and also add: I love the ocean.  I’ve always loved the ocean.  If I had spent the entire summer sitting at the rails without ever once getting off of the ship I probably would have been just as happy.  I spent hours (literally) every day just sitting and watching the waves. 

At any rate, like any good writer, I had my laptop with me and planned to write.  One evening I was one of the only people out on deck.  I was trying, and failing, to add another chapter to the elves.  I was sitting back and enjoying the breeze when a thought struck me: the ocean.  Why on earth had I never tried to write a story that took place at sea before?  How could I possibly fail at writing a book set somewhere that I love?

Apparently I could.  Pirates flopped.  Atlantis was never found.  And a quest for all sorts of magical treasures ended before it started.  I couldn’t create any plots or characters that got beyond the first chapter.  Once again, I was trying to force my writing.  This time it was with a setting, “At Sea,” that I was trying to force a plot and characters to fit.  It didn’t work.

I got home with a few more Untitled Documents sitting in my “Plotlines and Notes” folder.  I added maybe a chapter or two to my elves, never touched my sci-fi, and still didn’t have a plot.

After that, my memory gets a bit fuzzy.  What I do know is that I don’t remember when everything clicked into place.  I feel like I should remember.  I wish that I did.  All I know is that I realized I could take the characters I loved and drop them onto a ship.  Not just any ship, but the voyage that I had done.  Why make up shrouded islands and sunken cities when there were already places I knew about and a real adventure that I had experienced?  “Write what you know,” right? 

What I do know, is that the earliest file I can find that contains bits of what became Semester Aboard is dated 11/29/2008.  That’s more than a year after my voyage ended.  I imagine that I started writing notes for it in a notebook and on lost/deleted files before then. 

But, what I also remember, is that it flowed.  It worked.  It spoke to me like nothing had before (or has since).  As soon as they were on a ship I knew that Dani was going overboard and Jen was going to see it.  I wrote that scene, followed by Jen confronting them.  I reached the dreaded “Jen finds out about magic” dead end, but this time, I passed it.  Now that they were trapped on a ship, the most logical plot was to have some sort of enemy on there with them.  And I kept right on writing.

And now, all of that seemingly random stuff about websites and fanfiction is going to make sense!  In the summer of 2008 I volunteered to make a fanfiction forum for a LiveJournal group.  I would probably never have done if it I hadn’t run forums before.  It was lucky that I did.  We developed out own little community.  In fact, one of the people I met on that forum and I became such good friends that she’s coming to my wedding this spring.  I spent a lot of time writing fanfics and developing the forum.  That winter I ended up writing two massive fics.  Each clocked in at over 50k.  They were the longest stories that I had ever written and finished.  I really think they gave me the confidence to know that I could do it.  And, somewhere in the middle of it all, I was working on Semester Aboard.

On March 25, 2009 I posted the first chapter of Semester Aboard on the forum in the original section.  People loved it and begged for more.  I posted everything I had.  They wanted more.  It was largely thanks to them that I was pushed to keep writing.  Suddenly, I wasn’t just writing words, I was writing a story that people liked and wanted to read more of.  It really inspired me.

Then, to my utter shock, one day it was finished.  I posted the final chapter to the forum on May 14, 2010.  Yeah, it took over a year to write, but I don’t think I would ever have gotten it done that quickly without the support I was getting from the forum.  Once it was done, I settled back a bit.  I wrote a lot of short stories that took place in the same universe.  Most of them featured some of the main characters’ pasts.  I wrote some of these stories during the period when I was writing Semester Aboard as well.  I ended up with so much knowledge about my characters that when I went back to reread the early chapters one day, it was like reading a different book.  I realized that if I ever wanted to publish it, it needed some serious work.

As another side note (sorry) writing short stories is so, so helpful.  I think every author should do it!  When I struggled with writer’s block with my novel I was still able to write.  Better yet, by writing about some of the characters, it inspired me to keep writing the main story.  I wrote so many short stories that I ended up with insanely well-developed characters.  I’ve recently been doing internet questionnaires for fun for each of my characters.  I was able to fill out each one just as quickly as if I was doing it for myself because I know my characters so well.  They (I’m not crazy, I swear) almost seem like real people that I know.  Ever see a movie and think, “Oh, my friend so-and-so would love this!”  You know your friend so well, that you know what she likes, right?  It’s like that with my characters.  If you asked me, “What do they think of this movie?”  I’d just know.  My thought process isn’t, “I think I’ll make Dani like this movie, but Thomas will hate it.”  My train of thought is, “Well, the movie is about this, that’s something Mariana would enjoy.”  To wrap up my tangent: write short stories.  Get to know your characters inside and out.  It’s amazing.

I knew about e-books.  But the self e-publishing boom was only just starting when I finished Semester Aboard.  But a few months later everywhere I looked I was finding articles about it.  A good friend told me how her brother-in-law had self-published a best seller on the Kindle and I decided that I wanted to get in on e-publishing.  In October of 2010 I started editing.  Rewriting in fact.  As I said, some of the characters were so different in Chapter 1 than they were in Chapter 20 it was like two different people had written the book.  I rewrote, and edited, and obsessed for the better part of a year.

Finally, on August 5, 2011, Semester Aboard was published on Smashwords.  Looking back, I can’t believe how many of my different interests and experiences had to all fall together to create it.  If you’ve stuck with this insanely long post this long, I hope you take away a few things.  Don’t force your book, don’t ever delete anything (god, what would I have done if I had stuck the original character bios in the trash?), don’t get discouraged if it takes a long time, and take the time to write short stories.

So, there you have it.  That’s the long, detailed (boring) answer to how More than Magic: Semester Aboard came to be.

The Importance of Titles and Fonts

Everyone stresses how important it is to spend time and get a good quality book cover.  It’s true!  You know the saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover”.  Yet we’re all guilty of that.  I know that if I am looking at books by indie authors and I see a horrible cover (or no cover at all!) I’m less likely to buy it.  If the author couldn’t take the time to make the cover look nice, then how do I know they took the time to edit and proofread?  I look at it as a matter of pride as well.  I’m proud of what I wrote.  Why would I slap a cover on it that looks awful?

But enough on covers.  We’ve all heard that and there are plenty of people out there talking about the importance of a good cover.  What I rarely see mentioned is the font on the cover.  I feel that font is just as important as the picture.  All too often I see a great looking cover and then the title is in Comic Sans MS or Tahoma.  I’m no font expert, but if I can tell the name of the font you used, you need a different one.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with Times New Roman or Papyrus.  In fact, there’s nothing wrong with any of the standard fonts.  That said, there are tons of fonts that come standard.  Some of them, like Comic Sans, are overused.  They’ve become so popular that everyone knows what Comic Sans looks like.  If you spent time on the image of your cover, take a few extra minutes to consider the font you put with it.

Then you’ve got Maiandra GD, Segoe UI, and Gungsuh.  They’re standard fonts.  But, there’s a bit more to them than to Arial or Tempus Sans.  Your font doesn’t have to be some exotic, crazy font that nobody has heard of, but it should be uncommon.  If you can jump onto Smashwords, scroll down the page of new books, and spot your font on someone else’s cover, then you need a new one.

It’s also important to choose a font that fits your book.  If your book is set in medieval times, then you don’t want something like Bradley Hand, you want to go use that magical internet and find a gothic looking font.  If your book is about an elementary school kid, then Bradley Hand might be exactly what you’re looking for.  Don’t forget, those are just standard fonts!  There are countless websites that offer free fonts (just make sure that the font is licensed for commercial re-use!).  There are even programs that let you make your own font!  And there’s no reason you can’t mix and match!  Love the capital letters of one font, but hate the lower case?  There’s no reason you can’t use both!

Last: placement.  You can’t just pick the perfect font and slap it onto the cover.  You need to choose the right size and location and color.  You worked hard on your cover, right?  Don’t cover up something if you can move the title under it!  Your title shouldn’t be so large that it overpowers the cover, but it also shouldn’t be so small that people have to squint.  You also need to consider the color.  If your cover is black, then dark purple might not be the best color for the title.

Let’s see what’s happening right now!  I’m looking at the 10 most recently published books on Smashwords.

Book 1: A solid purple cover.  The font is in the Times New Roman family and done all in caps.  The author’s name is slightly smaller.  Zero effort.

Book 2: A pretty picture of a lake.  The font is just your standard Arial or Times New Roman.  It’s not centered, so one of the words in the title is on a different line, when it clearly shouldn’t be.  There’s plenty of room to have fit it all on one line, even without changing the size.  Also, one of the words on the cover is different from the advertised title of the book.  A prettier font and a better title placement would have gone a long way!  The author’s name isn’t on the cover.  And, please please, make sure there are no typos on your cover!

Book 3: Hey!  There’s a neat picture on the cover!  In fact, the more I look at it, the more details I spot!  The title has a box, that ties in perfectly with the rest of the cover.  The font is unique and eye catching!  There’s a subtitle underneath that adds to, without taking away, from the title.  The authors name is also placed well.  I can also tell what the book might be about, based on the cover!  I’d take the time to read the summary and maybe purchase this!

Book 4: Another well done cover.  Not as good as Number 3, but I like it.  It’s a bloody knife with the font over top.  The font is a basic Sans, but (there are exceptions to the rules!) happens to fit the title.  An effort was also made to alter some of the letters to match the blood spatters.  I’d do more than glance at this cover!

Book 5: It’s a picture of an animal!  That said, it’s just a picture.  No editing, no framing.  Just a picture slapped on with a very, very tiny title!  The font is good and the effort to not cover up the picture was made.  However, the title is so small, I had to enlarge the picture to read it.  There is room to make the font bigger without covering it up!  No author name.  I’d probably pass this by.

Book 6: Another picture of an animal.  This one has a border, which adds some interest.  The font is in the Sans family, probably Tempus Sans.  Hey, I just noticed that this, Book 5, and Book 2 are all by the same author!  This, like Book 2, has no thought to the placement of the title.  The words are off-center, and not on purpose.  Once again, words dropped to the previous line.  I only noticed that it was by the same author because the titles are similar.  This one has no author name either.  The font color on this blends in too much with the background, making it harder to read.

Since all three were by the same author, I’m going to step aside and say that this author is trying!  I actually see the effort to choose different fonts and play around.  That said, I only see the effort because I have three covers to compare to each other.  A bit more work on color and centering, and I’d be tempted to buy one of these!

Book 7: This is a cool cover!  It’s eye-catching and obviously took some effort!  It’s in a language I don’t speak!  The author’s name is well placed.  The font is sort of basic and blocky, but it works well with the over-all geometric feel of this cover.  If I spoke the language, I might consider this book!

Book 8: Oo, ahh.  A lovely font for the title!  The capital letters are fancy, which put together with the picture, give me an idea that this may be romance.  But, the overall title is easy to read.  It’s also got a simpler font for the subtitle and author’s name.  Wait! It looks like the fancy capital letters are from a different font, while the rest of the title and author’s name are the same font!  Tricky!  Well done!  It sets apart the title, but ties it all together!  This is a very well thought out cover!  The colors are also lovely.  I would definitely read the summary for this!

Book 9: There’s a picture, but that’s all that this cover has going for it.  The font is Times New Roman.  It’s just solid black, with no effort to center it.  The title takes up three lines, none of which are centered.  All three are left-justified.  The author’s name is indented, but is the same font, size, and color as the title.  I’m not very inclined to look further at the book itself.

Book 10:  I have mixed thoughts on this cover.  The art that makes up the background is neat and eye catching.  The author’s name is easy to see.  But, the font is just a very standard Arial.  The title is all caps and left-justified.  The subtitle, also to the left, is too small to see clearly.  The fact that it’s the exact same color as most of the cover makes it even harder to read.  I like this cover, from an artistic standpoint, but the effort in the font underwhelms me.

So, there you have the newest 10 books on Smashwords.  If you recognize any of these, please don’t be offended.  I am offering (harsh) constructive criticism.

Out of the ten, only two of them were professional looking, perfect covers that would entice me to read the summaries.  Three were good enough that I’d probably click on them, but it’s not a sure thing.  Only half of the covers were worth a second look!  Out of the rest of them, four were hurt because of the font!  That, is exactly why I’m writing this post!  All four of them could have been better, simply by spending a little extra time on the font.  Then, the tenth (first on the list) had no picture and no effort whatsoever in the font.

I’ve decided to throw my cover onto the chopping block to show you what I mean.

Here’s a working cover that I had, let’s see how it looks!

On this one we have the laziest job ever.  The font isn’t unique.  It’s a boring solid black.  The e at the end of my name is hard to see.  There’s a lot wrong with this.

What to do first?  Let’s change the color a bit!

That’s a little better!  The pale blue stands out fairly well and has a nice contrast with the sunset.  But, I think there’s more I can do.  Let’s get rid of that font!

Hmm…I think it looks better than it did with the standard font.  There are still a lot of problems.  This one is so thin I had to make it huge just to see!  It still isn’t that easy to see and making it even bigger would look weird.  It’s also very fancy.  This book is narrated by a college girl on a cruise ship in 2010, not a proper lady on the Titanic.

That’s better.  But it’s kind of loud.  I feel like the cover is shouting at me.  It’s also covering up the mermaid tail!  That’s a key feature on the cover!

Well, what do we have here?  It’s a fun font.  Not too in-your-face, not too serious, not too casual.  I’m still not happy though.  It’s not quite in the right place.  I also feel like there’s too much attention being called to my name.  I’m a new indie author, people are going to buy this based on the picture and the title, not who wrote it.  Hey!  My name could be in a different font!  While I’m at it, I’m going to fiddle a bit more with the sizes.

THERE!  “More than Magic” is the name of the series.  I made it a bit smaller to showcase the title of the book, “Semester Aboard”.  I also moved the two titles to work with the image.  I place them over the darker parts to make them easier to read.  You’ll also notice that for the first time the two titles are off-set.  Before, they were both left-justified.  Now they’re both centered.  I also used a different, less unique font for my name.  It’s still a more atypical font and not easy to identify.  But, it takes the emphasis off of my name and allows the person looking at the cover to focus on the title and the picture.  The cover still needs some work, but I’m much happier over all!  Now, look at the first one and the last one side by side.  Which would you buy?

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