Doctor Who series 11 episode 6 – Kerblam! review

MJG Doctor Who, Reviews Leave a Comment

After five episodes of this new Doctor that were often heavily freighted with political overtones, moral messages and Social Justice Warrior battles, it was extremely refreshing to get episode 6, Kerblam, that had almost nothing political about it at all.

Except it did. The political bit got snuck in during the last maybe 5 minutes, and provided a glorious reversal that I hadn’t seen coming. Also – despite it being set in the future – it echoed the historical appeal of Luddism beautifully. Plus it mocked/tore up/tipped its hat at Amazon. I enjoyed it very much.

Image from BBC

The episode opens with our crew zipping through turbulence in the Tardis timestream, bouncing around and getting panicky until the turbulence resolves as something homing in on them. It’s a robot delivery droid from Kerblam – the galaxy’s biggest retailer (Amazon) – teleporting in with a delivery for the Doctor.

A Tommy Cooper hat. Naturally the Doctor wears it. But the hat is not the thing – the message on the packing receipt is the thing.

Help Me.

So our troupe dash to a moon which Kerblam has colonized as a storage fulfilment center. Vast, dystopian warehouses recede into the distance. Robots with terrifying smiles and uniforms like something out of the Third Reich predominate. The workforce is 10% ‘organics’ (human) as mandated by some new tokenistic political reform.

Most people are unemployed. Workers who make it to the warehouse live there with only 2 weekends a year spent at home. Comedian Lee Mack is one of them – he gets to crack a joke or two. The Doctor et al go undercover trying to figure out what the issue is, and who needs help. With a workforce of 10,000, how long could it take?

I loved the set-up of this episode. Vilifying Amazon in this way, or at least setting it up to look like companies such as Amazon are the enemy, was fun in itself. The creepy bots. The massive, Gilliam-esque sets of warehouse machinery stretching to a vanishing point were extremely well done. A conveyor belt scene paid homage to a similar scene in another movie (was it Star Wars?). The feeling of little humans getting chewed up by an enormous, uncaring, impersonal machine was most evocative.

But wrong.

Or partially wrong.

SPOILERS

The denouement of this episode was both brilliant, daring and shocking. No, it wasn’t the system breaking people. It was the system calling for help. A terrorist guy in the workforce has been stealing delivery robots and setting them up with explosive plastic bubble wrap. They’ll all go out at once, the recipients of the bubble wrap will die, and a lesson about how humans are treated by Kerblam will have to be learned.

What an enormous amount is packed in there.

First off, the idea of explosive bubble wrap is genius – and right before Christmas! Doctor Who has always excelled at finding terror in non-terrifying, even banal things. Shop mannequins. Weeping angels (already a bit scary, to be fair). Now bubble wrap. What kid, after watching this episode, won’t be at least little bit careful when popping bubbles on Christmas Day?

Secondly, the inclusion of another human baddie. I love this. Humans are bad pretty often. Digging into what terrorism is and what it means has a lot of value. The show is brave in giving the terrorist in this case a very real and legitimate wrong he’s trying to right. Humans in this future are getting abused and neglected. The answer is obviously not to kill people – but it’s a symptom of how hopeless things had become that this young guy things this approach is the answer.

Thirdly, the Doctor’s response is beautifully subtle. It’s not the system. Basically she is saying – there is no such thing as computer error. Only human error. The system is wrong because we made it wrong. Which means we can make it right again, and should. This is topical today in that so many of society’s ills are getting blamed on automation, and if they’re not blamed on automation, they’re blamed on immigration.

We’re in charge of all these systems though. We’re doing this to ourselves, and the system is a tool.

Kerblam is not evil. Maybe it’s being used in evil ways. The fact is – people want their shopping delivered to them. That’s not evil. I want that. I shop on Amazon for nearly everything. All my groceries get delivered. ‘Hand-shopping’ seems like a failure of efficiency to me now, if I somehow miss a delivery deadline.

In 1810 the Luddites went after weaving frames in a bid to set back the march of technological progress and return jobs to good honest weavers. Market forces prevailed, because they reflected a greater good for what most people wanted. The lesson is the same here. Accept the change, but guard against its effects. I love this as a parable for globalisation, and the turbulent times of nationalism we’re going through.

Slow down. Look after the little guy. Share some of the wealth from these wealth-concentrating systems, instead of funnelling it all into the pockets of one almighty tycoon (Bezos).

What did you think?

Dinner with mom @ Pierre Victoire

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Since coming back to the UK 4 years back we’ve had one go-to French restaurant – Savoire Faire, on the edge of Soho near the British Museum. This past Friday I figured we should try a new place, and found Pierre Victoire, which is ranked 522 of London restaurants but #2 in Northern London for French restaurants.

Which is #1? Of course, it is Savoire Faire!

We were getting together to celebrate Karen’s birthday, so mom, Karen, me and Su. We gave Karen some cosmetics stuff from Neal’s Yard. We had a good chat about mom’s adventures in the day – riding buses all around London which she loves to do. She had strong London bus kung fu. She rode down to Kensington and back just to be sitting somewhere. She went into a hotel just before dinner and got herself a free Prosecco!

Dinner was very nice. I had a very tender and garlicky 8oz steak with pommes frites, chased by an individually baked sticky toffee pudding, savored alongside a full-bodied Merlot. Very reasonable pre-theatre pricing. Home by 10pm.

We chatted about family in Kentucky – Granny who just turned 92 but still does her gardening and drives herself around, Uncle Bobby who is still working at his bike shop but may some day hand it over to his younger daughter Emma, who is now heavily into trail riding after injury prevented her swimming career taking her to the Olympics. Cousin Boone is getting married into a wealthy family and they’ve rented a museum in Louisville for the engagement party.

A real nice time. We see them again in a week at mom and Karen’ s place for Su’s birthday dinner, where we will get to meet Colin and Connie, their new rescue cats – both Persian longhairs who look gorgeous and sweet!

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review – I feel guilty when I don’t play…

MJG Game Review, Reviews Leave a Comment

Red Dead Redemption 2 has sucked me in.

I’m a recent re-convert to console gaming. In my 20s I had an X-box and played Halo and Rock Band (see this post here for rocking-out awesomeness and me with hair) with friends round at my house with pizza and beers. Then I entered my 30s, coupled up, and the gaming largely stopped.

A year ago I bought an X-Box wanting to play The Last of Us, the zombie epic. I played a little, but struggled with the 1st person controls and couldn’t kill the zombies. I also bought The Witcher, but I struggled with that even more. A year passed, and Su suggested we buy Overcooked, a great fun little cooperative cooking game that we binged on until carpal tunnel set in for us both.

Then I saw the ads for Red Dead. I saw the reviews. Even though I’d bought Grand Theft Auto games before, and never played the campaign, something about this struck me differently. Number 1, it looked gorgeous. Nobody would say that about the GTA franchise, I think. If I want to go run around in a city, I can do that right now. Crime in that world doesn’t interest me.

But in the Old West?

I bought it. I played it. I love it.

Last night, in a 50-minute play session before the Apprentice, I set off to find an old gunslinger who I needed to interview for some guy who’s writing a book. I didn’t make it that far – first I got stopped by a guy in the bushes who’d got his leg stuck in a trap. I saved him. Then I got bucked off my horse when a crocodile attacked, as I entered a swampy zone. I killed the croc and skinned it. Then I found that I was Legendary Boar territory, so I hunted the boar through its dung for a while, killing it with Deadeye triple shots to the head.

I skinned the boar, and finally found the trapper who will buy skins off me. Made a quick buck. I settled down to end my play session in my own portable campsite, then two guys from Mulbray gang (or some such) interrupted my repose, holding a gun to my head and warning me to stay out of their territory. They congratulated themselves and started off, but I stood up and shot them both in the head.

All that in 50 minutes.

Oh, I also attacked a prison stagecoach because the woman inside was screaming for help, but didn’t take it out and instead got hunted by two bounty hunters, whom I managed to also kill.

Me inside my tent. I got a skinhead haircut (like my hair) but it grows out fast.

What game can compare to all that? When Su and I play Diablo (which we haven’t done for ages) there is no real story going on. No events. We go somewhere and mash the same combination of buttons with no fear of death. That takes 50 minutes. We do it again. Again. It’s so repetitive. There’s no skill.

The skill in Red Dead is apparent. I’m not good at shooting, so when I get a headshot it’s fantastic. Red Dead rewards me with slo-mo of my target recoiling. I also often die. So there is mastery to be had here. But unlike The Last of Us, I’m never trapped into an encounter in which I can’t prevail. I have only had to re-try action scenes a max of three times before I can get it. There is a learning curve, and its rewarding, not punishing.

For example, I stole another stagecoach full of oil (really a big barrel on wheels) from a refinery and got shot up but escaped. 10 minutes later I got hunted down by the refinery guards and died. It took 3 more times to steal it without dying, take a wide route away from the hunters, and get to a place to hide it away.

That was fun. That was rewarding. And it’s always unique and different.

Me with goatee beard and fantastic waistcoat. And look at that soft light. That light moves and shifts effortlessly, changing as I move and and the sun moves.

And I’m not even mentioning half of the best stuff.

The graphics are an obvious draw. They are fantastic. Maybe I’m easily awed since I’ve not played a game like this since my World of Warcraft days, but I am awed by this. The sweeping vistas are stunning. Huge expansive plains, craggy mountains in the far distance, canyons, rivers, skies. The weather is always changing, and the light changes dramatically as clouds pass overhead, as rain sets in, as the sun beats down. At night the prairie is beautiful and the skies gleam with stars.

The close-up details are also mind-blowing. The depth of every 3D rendered object, person and thing is amazing. A can of beans looks like a can of beans. A gun looks like a gun and is easily distinugishable from a dozen other models, and from one with rust, from one that’s dirty. Trees and grass and leaves are impeccable. When I walk in the mud or in the snow, I leave footprints that perfectly match my feet. when I kill a crocodile on the edge of the bayou, it slaps down into a crocodile-shaped hole in the mud.

When I skin an animal, I see all the muscle and fat the remains on the carcass. It’s pretty gross. My clothes get dirty after I get knocked in the mud and I have to take a bath. My hair and beard grow. There are countless outfits I can wear. Eyes glint in the light and move convincingy. It is such a vastly conceived and executed world. If I was playing with a VR-headset it would feel basically real.

One of countless stunning vistas. It just looks real.

That is one of the three major legs to the stool of why Red Dead is awesome. The first leg is that it’s so much fun to play, packing a wide range of events into every play session. Thirdly though is the people.

I titled this article – ‘I feel guilty when I don’t play’. I think this is the game’s signature achievement – making me feel part of my family/gang of misfit criminals. I’ve never felt that before from a game. Maybe a book. I’ve played GTA and never seen it as more than a chance to race around evading the cops. But Red Dead 2 has me sucked right in, caring about these people.

Part of the genius of this is the 2-hour or so opening tutorial. The gang’s in the mountains, fleeing our last job that went wrong in Blackwater. We don’t know much at this stage – there’s no scrolling narration to explain. Just what people around us say and what my guy writes in his journal. First up, I’m astonished to see that my gang is like a family.

This is not like GTA. There are older men and women, and younger ones, and children too. They seem normal. When we stumble on another gang ravaging a town house, we save the widowed wife and she joins our gang. She’s treated with respect. I quite like these people. Of course, we are also criminals. Some people we kill without thinking about it. But this is the life we’re in.

Look at that dirt in the track. I zoomed right in. It looks like real dirt!!

OK.

In this first 2 hours we spend a lot of time getting to know the gang leader, Dutch, and our predicament. The weight on his shoulders is obvious. Getting older, he longs to get enough money to settle down, buy some land for the gang and make a life. The Blackwater job was supposed to achieve that, but we failed.

After the 2 hours hiding in the mountains, we set up a new camp in a forest near the town of Valentine. All my gang are in the camp, though a few are spread out looking for jobs/capers. I can walk around camp and talk to everyone multiple times, and they all have different things to say. Sometimes they’re already talking to each other about something, and I can join in. They wander around, get stew, ask for things like a pen or a book.

I get sent on quests. Every time I come back from a quest, or even just an outing, everyone has new dialogue loaded up. Their lives move forward along with mine. Conversation never repeats. They have new topics for me, for each other. Sometimes the quests are totally frivolous. My favorite quest so far was going to the bar with Lenny.

Lenny is a black member of the gang who I had to buy out of jail after a near-lynching. Dutch tells me to take him to the saloon for a few drinks to calm down. This devolves into a riotous, hilarious and ultimately sweet series of quests to ‘Find Lenny’ or ‘find Ynnel’ as I get drunker. My vision blurs. Everyone in the saloon looks like Lenny. I’m the annoying, good-natured drunk tipping around asking ‘Lenny?” Then there is can-can dancing on the bar, and singing, and we’re dunking some guy’s head in a water trough for a laugh, and I find Lenny and lose him again, and then the police are on us but we run away and…

I laughed and found myself falling for these guys. They clearly love each other. To get to be a part of this is just a new experience for me in a game. I feel like me and Lenny are best mates. I want to go drinking with him again and get up to some more crazy antics.

So why do I feel guilty when I don’t play?

Well, that happened on a particular quest wiht Hosea. He’s a nice enough, criminal old guy who also wants to settle down. He respects Dutch but tries to influence him and get us to quit the life. I respect him for this too. He asks me to go hunt a bear.

We go hunt a bear. Halfway through the hunt, after we start stalking it, Hosea bows out. He’s too old for this, and heads home. I let him go off alone and finish the hunt. The bear mauls me to bits in a terrifying, Revenant-style battle. But I get him. I get his skin. I have to break from play and can’t get back to it for a few days.

In those days, I start to feel guilty. I’m worried about Hosea. Is he OK after bowing out? I want to sell my bear skin and take some money back to the camp, to make my contribution. I want to check in with everyone and do my part for the family.

What a strange way to feel! But also lovely. This virtual gang of criminals needed me, and I wanted to be there for them. I still get it now, if I stay out questing for too long out of camp. I want to go back and check in. Make sure everyone is OK.

Some bad things are probably going to happen to some of these people later on. We’ll probably lose Dutch or others. I don’t want that to happen, and I’ll care when it does. How strange, and what a wonderfu game to make me feel this way…

Office lunch chit-chat

MJG Life Leave a Comment

Today I felt a bit giddy and chatted to my co-workers at lunch instead of buzzing off to the library to do some writing. Topics covered included:

  • K (redacted) the opera singer talking about not liking any musicals except maybe Meet Me At St. Louis (which I don’t like)
  • A who’s studying for a PhD decrying the Harry Potter phenomenon as only for kids (and me pushing back HARD with reference to Alice in Wonderland being for kids but beloved by adults)
  • D telling me about the lemon drizzle cake he made for his kid, because I’m interested in baking cakes after watching so much Great British Bake-Off
  • M saying we’d be better off buying the cake in a shop, and
  • R grumbling about students needing to go off for Friday prayer in the middle of the afternoon lesson in the library

I received recommendations to watch West Side Story, read At Swim, Two Boys, and cook a cake loaf flavored with vanilla. Good haul. Also to try out Bellenger the Alsatian restaurant in Highbury.

Cat queue

MJG Cats Leave a Comment

We lock the boys (our cats) in a little after it gets dark, and they’re still adjusting to this as darkfall has gotten earlier. Especially as it’s colder, they tend to lounge around all day in the house, then want to go out at night.

This is what that looks like.

Very patient.

Writing Update 2018 week 46

MJG Writing Leave a Comment

For the past 2 weeks I’ve been a little jammed up around the 50,000 word mark on my thriller book 2. I’d write a chapter or two forward, then go back and wonder if it was the right move or not. Go back 3 or 4 chapters and reconsider.

A major character dies. It’s a big blow, and takes some real thinking to know if I’m set on it.

Now that jam is cleared. We just spent 10,000 words on a plane. I find in writing these thrillers that there’s a lot of time spent in transit. The transit time is a great time to catch up on what’s happening in other plot threads, check in with HQ and see what the news is, and also absorb whatever happened in the last action scene.

How many big action scenes in this book? 3 or 4 big ones so far. 2 more coming before the end. And lots of detective-ing puzzle work. Plus another vehicular crash. 2 in the book so far.

  • Word count: 61,000
  • Number of vehicular crashes: 2
  • Body count: Somewhere around 15 so far. Goodies and baddies mixed in.
  • Locations: 4 major ones. Rural and City and Suburb and Plane. Now heading back to a different deep rural.
  • Anticipated wordcount: Still 100,000.

Now I start thinking about book 3. Lots of possibilities. Maybe religion this time?

Lincoln cat follows

MJG Cats Leave a Comment

Lincoln cat always follows us into the park. It’s the cutest thing – he wants to see where we’re going, he just wants to be with us – but it’s also a big worry because dogs roam with their leashes off in the park. He’s been chased and almost bitten before.

This time dogs were approachng and he was just sitting there looking the other way. I picked him up and walked hm out, but he jumped free when a little dog came running, and hid under a van.

Cute, but a worry.

Doctor Who series 11 episode 5 – Demons in the Punjab review

MJG Doctor Who, Reviews, TV Leave a Comment

I’ve seen some reviewers charging that Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who is too fluffy and doesn’t engage with weighty issues. When I read that, I can’t help but scoff. What on Earth are they talking about? Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who is absolutely a Social Justice Warrior of the very best, foremost class. Thus far she has taken on the very real issues of:

  • Racism and Jim Crow in the Rosa Parks era – as well as in the far future
  • The evils and stupidity of guns
  • The terrible cost of fascist dictatorships (destroying whole worlds)
  • The very fact that she is a woman in a role that has always belonged to a man
  • The evils of massive, irresponsible corporations dumping poison and refusing responsibility
  • The evils of a Trump-like tycoon operating by whim and fiat
  • The evils of the death penalty

Image from the BBC

I don’t know what these complaining Who fans thought the earlier episodes of Who were about that was so deep. A lot of whizzing around dealing with aliens that were utterly inhuman. This is another complaint we’re getting – where are the aliens?

I for one am loving the new push of humans. We are humans. Sci-fi should matter. Humans, or aliens with human-like traits, have to be front and foremost. Remember the original creed of Doctor Who – to teach through time travel. Not just to have slap-bang adventures. To teach meaningful things.

Last night’s episode, Demons in the Punjab, absolutely fulfilled that role. Diving into the issue of the 1947 Partition of India/Pakistan, when millions died as the two countries were split along lines drawn on a map by the English. When Graham says “What?” to all of the above, I was in the same boat.

All those details above – I learned them from the episode. That’s real stuff, providing people today with real context for ongoing issues. What happened here, and why did millions die? Because extremist, newfound nationalists wanted them to. They belong on this side of the line. I belong on this side. That’s all there is to it.

Nobody needs to explicity say that this is the same recidivist nationalism striking the world now, with Brexit, Trump and elsewhere. We ‘demonize’ the other and it ultimately leads to massacre. That’s a regular occurence in the US these days, with politically/religiously-motivated slaughters.

So the story – it’s Yaz’s grandmother’s marriage back in 1947 – but it’s not what we expected. Extremism raises its ugly head and sows division. Aliens are involved, but it’s not the involvement we expected. Instead of assassins come to obstruct history, like in Rosa Parks, here we get aliens come to witness the lonely deaths.

That is such a beautiful idea. A whole race dedicated to providing a kind of succor to the lost. Commemorating them. That’s a religion I could get behind. I loved the Doctor saying it was much like her faith. Whatever religion the Doctor is, I want a piece of it. Let’s found a church and go repeat her wise sayings.

How can anyone say these are not real issues? This stuff is essential, learn-from-history-or-be-destined-to-repeat-it education. There’s even a line directly to that point in the episode – “I didn’t fight in WW1 just to come back to this!”

And the hope. I love Chibnall’s vision. Zooming back to see all those floating heads. It’s tragic they were lost. It’s beautiful they will be remembered.

Finally – can I just say a few words about how muscular Whittaker’s Doctor is? She’s not a pansy, triggered liberal. She has her beliefs and will fight for them. She is always saying things like – “Get behind me!” or “This place is now under my protection!”

So fantastic. It sends chills through me. I love that she is a protector.

And, as ever, after the Doctor ends and we roll straight into Strictly Come Dancing – I get another massive SJW punch as the Armistice is commemorated with a floor full of women in RAF uniforms. Tears in my eyes, again. God, I love the BBC!!

Indie Guides: How to get a great book cover artist

MJG Book Cover Design, Indie Guides, Life, Marketing Leave a Comment

As a self-publisher for 5 years now, with fourteen novels, two short story collections and a non-fiction book of my Japan ruin adventures, you can bet I’ve commissioned a lot of book covers, and thus have a lot of experience (even wisdom?) I can pass along. Added all together that’s 17 covers commissioned, right?

Well, not exactly. I think I’ve taken just about every route to a cover that is possible, including making one of them from scratch myself. So then that’s 16 covers commissioned?

No again, because my three cyberpunk I’ve had re-made FOUR times (count ’em, for five versions total), my first four zombie novels I had re-made once, my epic fantasy I had re-made once, my two short story books I had re-made once, and my non-fiction I re-made myself at least FOUR times.

So, yeah, that’s a lot of covers, a lot of artists, a lot of commissions. These are just the first four cyberpunk variations (one more is yet to be released!):

And here’s the first 4 books in my zombie series – again it’s the same books, but two sets of covers. Guess which version did the best?

Yes, it’s the second. Here are all the ways it can be done:

Do it yourself

No. Don’t do this.

I have done shades of this multiple times, beginning with my book on exploring Japanese ruins. Here are the several iterations I went through with that book, all self-made:

Coming from a background in photography, with a working knowledge of Photoshop and an eye for composition, I recommend heavily against it. Why?

Because it is bloody hard to produce something that looks pro yourself, unless you do this for a living. Fonts alone are a nightmare. Making a font look good is damn hard. It can involve multiple layers, effects, textures that it could take you days to learn. And still, you wouldn’t get it right.

Look at the Mr. Ruin covers above – the first three rows were my fonts. They’re not great, and that is with some idea of what I was doing. The bottom row are done by a pro and are much better.

I tried once to make a similar fire effect font to those pro fonts, following a walkthrough guide on the Internet. It took me many hours, and it looked crap in the end. Yet you need these good-looking fonts. Slap on a plain white Times New Roman title and you are asking to be overlooked. It’s just a fact.

Don’t do it yourself.

That said, a bit of tinkering never hurt anyone. It is highly advisable, if you have Photoshop and some rudimentary skills, to get the .psd (photoshop file) off your cover artist as part of the deal, with text on separate layers. You will then be able to tinker to your heart’s content. Shift text around. Change the subtitle – as I did once for my zombie series. Make tiny alterations using clone stamp.

With a bit more skill, you can turn your book cover into banner ads yourself, or BookBub ads, or whatever. Isolate elements you like. At the same time, though, you can also get these things done very nicely for $5 on Fiverr, so conisder that. Either way – get the .psd .

Commission through Deviant Art

Deviant Art is a site where artists showcase their portfolios. Some of my earliest book covers, along with some of my more recent ones (yet to be released) were commissioned through the Deviant Art system. They have a forum (here) where you can post jobs and artists can put themselves forward with bids and their individual portfolios.

I’ve done Deviant Art commissions numerous times, and worked with lots of different artists for very reasonable prices, and I’ve never once been screwed over. There is definitely the possibility of getting screwed there. There are no ebay-like protections. It’s the Wild West of Internet transactions, but if you put in place a few commonsense precautions, equitable to everyone, then you’ll be fine.

And it’s worth it. There are truly fantastic artists there who are ridicuously cheap. A full illustration/digital painting toy our exact spec, $50? $100 if you feel like splashing out? No problem at all. Thats possible because many of these artists are international, and live in countries where dollars and pounds go a lot further than they do here. $100 is a sweet rate for a days worth of work.

So how to do it right?

  • Put up your gig. In the headline say youre looking for a book cover with typography. Give the $ amount you’re willing to pay.
  • In the post give some details. A sense of what you’re looking for.
  • Sit back and watch the applications roll in. Probably you’ll get 10-20. If you’re offering more $, you’ll get more.
  • Sift through the many options. Some will be awesome. Some will be junk. Brace yourself – very few will have actual book covers in their portfolios. This is a drawback. Many of these folks don’t know how to do fonts. As I said above, fonts are a different skill. Most of the Deviant Artists do art. So you may end up either doing the fonts yourself (ugh) or hiring someone else just for that smart.
  • Contact the artist you like. Discuss timescale and number of revisions they’re willing to do. Get it in email format, off the site ideally.
  • Once basic terms are agreed, set up a system like this: you’ll pay half the money on initial drawings. This is fair – hopefully initial drawings won’t take them too long. It won’t be useful to you until they put more work in, so you’re not getting something for nothing. And if their initial drawings are bad, you can both part ways without too much time or money wasted.
  • If you like it however, then pay half through Paypal. Ride them until they produce the rest. Pay up on competion, and they’ll release full files with .psd to you.

Ta Dah. I’ve done this countless times, and never been screwed. Often these artists will go above and beyond, because they care about their art. Those bidding for $100 commissions are almost certainly not professional – they’re just talented beginners looking to make their name. Every work they do for is also a work for them – another piece to put in their portfolio. So they are incentivised.

Drawbacks:

  • They can rarely do fonts.
  • If you want a photo-manipulation cover, this is likely not the place. More and more covers are photo-manipulation, and that’s not a Deviant Art strength. They do custom illustrations, digital painting. Many of them are good enough to make an image that looks near photo real. But yes. Study portfolios carefully!

Originally I had my first 4 Zombie Ocean books made through a Deviant Art artist, I think $75 a cover:

I don’t use them now, but I still think they are great work. I did the fonts myself. I opted later on for photo-manipulation covers, bought through a different service that included typography.

What service? I’m glad you asked:

Commission from a book cover pro service

There are a profusion of book cover design services these days, and many of them are really fantastic. Some are not. It can be hard to tell, honestly, if a book cover design is good or not. The trouble with authors commissioning their own covers probably rests largely with the author.

Why?

Well, we often don’t know what we’re talking about. That’s not meant as a slight. It was a big part of why, for many years, I was set on trying to get a traditional publisher for my early books. Alongside the standard reasons for this, such as trad pubs used to be the only feasible way to reach a mass market, and me wanting gatekeeper approval, was my confidence that I didn’t know jack about book marketing.

Taglines. Covers. Even titles. I didn’t know how to sell my Mr. Ruin series, or my Ignifer Cycle. I wanted someone else to do it, and this reality was borne out in the not great covers I had made early on. I can’t blame it on my artist at all. They executed my vision faithfully. The problem was my vision.

Going back to these. I asked for these. I thought they were a great idea that really reflected the content of the books. Book 1 is a brain on a planet’s core, with lines through it like a maze. It’s set out like a schematic. In some ways it’s similar to Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. It’s also similar to China Mieville’s covers (more on this).

I loved them. It took me years to realize they didn’t appeal to my readers. They didn’t signal genre at all. These books are cyberpunk. They should have Bladerunner-ish covers, full of neon and cool purple/blues.

I commissioned these from a friend. He counseled me against this design, but I pushed through. They were fairly cheap. The big pro book cover makers cost way more. The one I had my eye on, years later, was Damonza.

(There are of course other services like this. 99 Designs is a pretty major one, costing from $300 upward)

$500 a cover! That sounded crazy. It was more than I’d made on any of my books to that date. The big pro designers definitely know about fonts. They tend much more toward photo-manipulation, which is like making a digital collage from other photographs, usually sourced off a photo repository like Shutterstock.

After a year of good sales with my zombie series, featuring the comic book-style covers as above, I decided to fork out for a Damonza cover. Here’s what I got:

They’re much better. Maybe still not perfect, as these books look more like thriller covers than zombie covers. That’s what I asked for, so again, this is my own vision possibly getting in the way. It’s a learning curve, and I’ll write about educating yourself on genre and adapting your vision soon.

So, $500 for the cover on the left. $250 for the next two, because the background remained the same. $500 again for number 4 with a new background, then $250 each for 5 and 6. After that I outsourced to another artist, because I had the psd. Everything had to change for book 7, apart from the layout and font, but I was tired of paying so much for quite minor changes.

I had a very clear idea of what I wanted, so I went cheaper. About as cheap as it’s possible to go, actually, via:

Fiverr

Fiverr is a gig shopping site where you can get loads of tasks done. I first stumbled upon it for the bknights book promotion service – which offers facebook shares, twitter shares, etc…

I went back a few times to get book promotion images made – basic stuff like a 3D version of my book, which the folks there do easily and well, which I can’t do easily, and most people couldn’t do without Photoshop. Here’s what that looks like, from one artist I used:

Here we’ve got print book, ipad and phone. The cover was made by another pro artist (more in a? minute). I framed the backdrop image.

Same artist – the backdrop is something I bought off shutterstock.

Anyway, the point here was getting covers done by fiverr artist on the ultra cheap. So, I tried this a few ways, starting with the Mr. Ruin covers. Most gigs on fiverr are $5 but you can pay more. I paid maybe $20, and I got exactly what I paid for. I didn’t even keep the images that artist produced, because they were so poor.

OK.

When I tried with The Last Mayor series, however, I hit a stroke of luck. I had the psd with typography, so I just needed a new backdrop. Shadows and contrast could cover a multitude of sins. I paid $40 per cover to a different artist and got the following:

These are definitely grimier than the first 6, but considering the price I was over the moon. The series is 7 books in at this point – I figure anyone who’s already read 6 books won’t quit on the 7th because the cover is not quite as clean. I saved myself about $900 doing it this way.

I could have saved even more if I went with a premade.

Premade covers

Often these are covers that a designer makes for a client, but the client rejects. Many of the big design companies will present you with several draft ideas to choose from. Damonza gives you 3 for your $500. You pick the one you want and develop it, while they keep the other 2, stick a generic title on, and make it a premade, on sale for anything from $20-$50.

Here are a few premade pages:

For a long time I had Deviant Art-created covers on my 2 short story collections. You can see them here, and judge them as you will. Bone Diamond does not look great… I didn’t want to invest much in getting new covers for these, as they have never sold much, but I did want to smarten up my portfolio, so I picked 2 covers from Go On write.

I think I still have credits with that site now…

I liked that the old ones matched in setup and typography, but they just didn’t look pro. The new ones look better. I changed the titles to freshen them up as well.

Individual Pro Artists

I mentioned above that I had my Saint’s Rise books made by a pro individual artist. This was Clarissa Yeo – I found her when I saw a cover I really liked online, read up on the artist, and contacted her.

There was something like a 4-month wait. This is a major difference between a solo artist like Clarissa and a service like Damonza or 99-Designs. The big services have a stable of artists who will make your cover in a week or so. Soloists have a wait list – but are often cheaper by comparison, and can produce fantastic quality.

Here’s the covers I had made for my two Ignifer Cycle book some 8/9 years ago – from the same artist who did the first Mr. Ruins (a friend).

This is another case where he made the cover and I did the fonts. I still think these are realy striking images, but- they don’t match what’s out there in the genre. Maybe they don’t signal genre at all. In total book 1 sold maybe 200 copies. Book 2 probably sold 50.

I hired Clarissa, and this is what she came up with:

I love these. Interestingly, the tunnel walls and underfoot rails in book 1 come from photos I took myself in my ruins exploring days. Pretty neat. Largely on the strength of these covers, these books have sold thousands of copies.

Clarissa charges $299 now for an ebook cover. Definitely worth it, if you can book her.

There are countless other individual cover artists out there, running their own businesses through their own websites. Natasha Snow made the last row of my Mr. Ruin covers. You only need to look at great comparable book covers, find out who the artist was, and reach out.

Phew

That was exhaustive. And I haven’t even mentioned my early forays into short story covers, made by my good buddy and graphic artist Canadian Mike in my Japan days. Here’s a few of them, which sadly never saw the light of day:

Pretty neat, right? They don’t signal genre at all, and the only one I ever released was Killin Jack, but it maybe sold only 2 copies. This was in 2013, when I had no clue about marketing at all.

Summary

In summary, my advice is – pay for a pro cover from a service like Damonza or from a pro solo designer like Clarissa Yeo. You’ll have to drop some cash, but it’s worth it. They know what they’re doing.

Ah. But here’s the rub. Do you know what you’re doing? Do you know what you’re asking for?

Look at all the ways I asked for the wrong thing over my commissioning career. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on covers I just had to get re-made. An artist can only really realize your vision, and if your vision is badly skewed? The cover will be bad even if it’s pretty. It needs to work for your genre.

I’ll write a post about how to make your cover signal genre and appeal to genre fans next. You can also take a look at my Adventures in Book Marketing posts to see more examples!

Hanging with thriller authors + doing research

MJG Life, Writing Leave a Comment

On Monday night I went to the First Monday Crime group, which meets at City University, and is sponsored by the MA course they run in only writing thriller novels. I checked out the course website. It says something like- The only MA course which allows you to complete a full novel!

That’s an odd boast. I don’t need someone to allow me to write a novel. I can write a novel whenever I want. I don’t need your permission!

Anyway, there were some speakers. Fiona Cummins who wrote Rattle. I read the first few pages in advance and thought it was pretty opaque linguistically. She purposefully doesn’t give us much to go on in in terms of concrete setting, character, emotion. It’s rather poetic and annoying to me.

I didn’t read the other authors on the panel. We met in a lecture hall and they talked about their work first, and then largely about their research. I was quite amazed by how much research they do. Cummins talked about writing letters to serial killers in prison. One guy talked about his trip to North Korea, so he could write a spy thriller set there. The others are always in real-world libraries (ie – not Wikipedia) seeking out true life peccadilloes.

Huh.

I guess it’s coming from science fiction and fantasy that makes me feel odd about this. Like, are you telling a story or doing journalism? I suppose it is both. I suppose the journalism, direct experience side of this kind of writing is what gives an author authority. ie- people like to read spy thrillers written by real spies, action thrillers from real soldiers, and etc…

What an exhausting amount of work! It doesn’t interest me. I suppose to get that authority though, as if I’m telling stories from the real front line, I should go visit with some US cults in person. Maybe it’s not enough to watch Louis Theroux and others go do that stuff for me?

Ugh. Somehow it feels prurient, a bit ghoulish… It would definitely give me something different to blog about. In keeping with my days as a ruins-exploring ‘dark tourist’. Hmm…