Cover Images Discussed in *Discovering Your Author Brand*

Hard-Boiled Detectives: Spillane and McBain, with a woman in jeopardy or as femme fatale.  McBain as Hunter broke into the market with Blackboard Jungle, about the seedy side of high school. The John D. MacDonald cover depicts his work before he found his famous series character Travis McGee.

More hard-boiled men in exotic adventures: Louis L’Amour and Lester Dent.

Tone is as important as idea. Here are three well-known, highly regarded mystery writers with early covers of their books: Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Erle Stanley Gardner (of the Perry Mason series).


The first Cadfael book. On the far left, the first printing, emphasizing the spookiness of what should be a mystery novel. 1980’s sole monk appears designed for the religious reader. The far right is the 2011 cover, playing on the medieval monk and murder, but it’s not attractive. The 1994 edition started the break-out of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael series, coinciding with the first episodes in the TV series. One wonders if the TV marketers gave guidance to the book industry.

The above covers for Tony Hillerman’s first book depict the same problem that the Cadfael series faced.  On the far left is the 1970 first edition: is this a mystery? Is it merely a book about Native Americans? The 1978 and 1980s (the exact date for the 1980s cover is not known) covers mix desert southwest (locale) with one of the other elements ~ 1978 adds the Navajo mythology but not mystery. 1980s adds danger (the skull), but not the Navajo. The 1990 cover mixes all three: desert SW, a bit of danger, and Navajo mythology. The far right cover is the 2019 edition, closer to the original with a big of danger mixed in. But if you don’t know it’s a mystery in the desert SW, you’re going to be surprised.

These next covers are for the first Hillerman book that I purchased, A Thief of Time. I bought the book on the far right along the Ellis Peter’s Morbid Taste (stained glass cover) and the first Elizabeth Peters all on that visit in 1995. I was lucky to pick up all three at the local chain store in the mall. On the far left is the 1988 cover, archaeology in the desert SW–no mystery but Kokopelli is Native American mythology. The middle cover is from 1989, mystery but very little connection to the desert SW (yes, we could count the border–but I don’t). The third cover from 1990 echoes the first one and coincides with the reprinting of his backlist. Notice the addition of skulls in front of the Mesa Verde-style pueblos. The Winner by hitting all three elements.

The marketers had difficulty with the Amelia Peabody series. The first book, far left, failed completely. The second book emphasized romance more than mystery. The heroine looks weak-willed and desperate for the man, which is not Amelia’s character, at all. While she loves the archaeologist, she stood strong against him and with him. We do have the Sphinx, though, rather than palm trees that could be mistaken for any American tropical area.

The third book is the one that was my own introduction to Amelia Peabody. I’m in Egypt with a pith helmet. Nothing about the title says mystery, nor does the slithering crocodile—although it does say danger. The cover does tell me that this is “An Amelia Peabody Mystery”, which announces a series. The graphic image is just a little off reality and certainly not like the preceding romantic feel of the previous cover.

The far right cover is from 2006 and is a British printing. We have Amelia on her knees in the sand, pyramids in the background, working on something while her friend paints. The crocodile on the Nile River grounds the cover image. It’s appropriately fanciful but a little naif which Amelia certainly is not.



Pro Writer: Keep Writing

Starting the novel is easy. How do you keep writing it?

Here are the last three bits of advice that I recently gave a former student who wants to write his first novel. This is the same advice that I would give to anyone. The first bits are to start him writing. Today is all about how to keep writing.

These are the bits of advice every writer—fiction / nonfiction, prose / poetry, book / film / playscript—needs to succeed.

11] Set achievable writing goals.

Think weekly then divide into daily. Write your planned new words every day—

no exceptions except injury or major events (celebrations like family holidays and weddings and graduations and the like).

a] When I became serious about publishing—and it took me a year to

2 versions available ~ beautiful flowers or the guiding task lamp

change my mindset from hobby writer to pro writer, a journey that I boiled into 7 lessons and shared in my book Think like a Pro—I started with 1,000 words daily as my minimum word count. That’s about 2 hours (think 2 500-word essays) (and practice has allowed the words to come faster). Since that first true writing year, I’ve upped my word count, and I celebrate every time I achieve more than my new minimum.

b] You can break up your writing sessions into smaller increments. Few of us are lucky enough to indulge in long daily writing sessions. Be realistic. Consider your daily obligations. Pick an achievable goal—less than you truly want, such as 500 words.

c] Maintaining this simple weekly word count will be the HARDEST thing you have done and will ever do. Maintaining it is CRUCIAL. The building word count of the manuscript helps you feel success. Fall off? Hop back on. Any extra words make up for the falling-off days—which will happen.

d] Don’t yourself when a bad week occurs. Every day is a new day. Every week is a new week. Returning to your devotion to writing is essential. The longer you are away, the harder it is to return. Writing every day makes much easier your recovery from the bad days and the bad weeks.

12] Track events.

Track what occurred in each writing session by outlining it afterwards on a simple legal pad. This has a dual benefit:

a] You don’t get bored with the story by planning too much beforehand.

b] You have a running list of events and basic info about scenes. When you finish, you can store this basic list, updated, with the final manuscript—which is helpful when you need to return to the MS months or years after.

Drum Roll, please.

Here’s the last bit of writing advice to help my former student to keep writing—as well as anyone else that these 13 bits of advice will help. Of course, with all advice, take it or leave it. What works for some will not work for others. However ~

Writer at Work

13] End each session and begin each session with a jot-list.

a] The ending jot-list will list what should occur next. Never write until the words run dry. Write for your allotted time, then make notes about what will happen next.

b] Start a session by reviewing the ending jot-list then MAKE A NEW ONE before you start writing. Handwriting this list of words and phrases seems to engage the brain more than typing it does.

c] You may not be able to hit all of the ideas in the next writing session. Those ideas will then head into the next session—or will be held in reserve for the appropriate upcoming scene. Always transfer the ideas over. Never trash them.

      • Your impish writing muse will not be amused if you trash ideas that she’s given you. Don’t offend the muse; she’s got prickly thorns.

d] These ending/beginning lists do not count in your daily words.

e] When you away from the writing session, going about your daily life, your impish muse will tickle your subconscious brain, and new ideas for your story will continue to develop.

Arthur Rackham’s vision of a nymph calling a storm (of ideas? of words? We’ll pick that! ).

There. That’s the 13 bits of advice for anyone wanting to start writing and keep writing a novel—or a nonfiction book.

The advice works for any type of writing, including emails at work.

Not-so-Shameless Self Promotion

If you truly want to write your first novel—or you want to complete that manuscript that you shoved into a drawer a few years ago because it wasn’t working, then Discovering Your Novel can help.

If the problem was characters, then try my Discovering Characters, just published, followed by Discovering Your Plot, which will present as many plot structures that I’ve encountered as well as their deficiencies and the plot structure that I personally find most helpful when analyzing all stories and when considering the writing of your own stories.

And if you are struggling with the transition from writing as a hobby to writing seriously so you can become a professional writer, you will find the seven lessons in Think like a Pro helpful. I have two different covers, the guiding lamp and the floral version.

Want something to keep you on-track with projects and word counts? Try the Think/Pro planner for writing, with daily word counts and project tracking, monthly & seasonal reviews and previews, and additional tips and guidance to help you with the transition from newbie to Pro. Here’s the link to the cover that matches for the floral version of Think like a Pro.

All links are to Amazon because I’m busy. As always, all the writing is AFM, all mine. Think like a Pro and the Think/Pro planner are available in print as well as electronic editons; the Discovering set is not yet available in paperback—that will happen in 2020. . .because I’m busy. 😉


Pro Writer: Start Writing 4

Strong protagonists, twisty antagonists, and clever surprises (the focus for Start Writing 4) drive great story-telling. These three give all writers angst. When writers do their writing right, they also give their readers angst.

Here’s the next two bits of advice that I gave my former student who wants to write his first novel.

9] Work in two betrayals. Have one early (before the 20% mark) and the other before the ¾-mark of the story (around 60-75%).

a] People hate betrayal. They remember it like acid burning their memories and their soul. Some people never quite recover from betrayal. Others keep waiting on the traitors to redeem themselves—that might could happen, mostly doesn’t.

b] The betraying character is often called a Shapeshifter. We have two forms:

      • The character who seems to be working for the antagonist but is not. Either this character was trapped into the appearance of alliance with evil or this character is working on redemption.
      • The other Shapeshifter is a true traitor, the double agent, the one who appears to support the protagonist but has been working for the antagonist the whole time.

c] Save the exposure of the true traitor for the latter part of your novel. As part of Start Writing 4, I’ll advise you to know who this character will be from the very beginning.

10] When you’re trying to think of how to surprise the reader and your protagonist, you need to reject what most people would think of. Think harder.

a] Always think outside the box of what normal people would do. That’s the major advice for this part of Start Writing 4.

b] People were shocked by Gone Girl and The Sixth Sense. I figured both out from the promotions, but then I’ve taught story structure and character development for decades. It’s hard to surprise me.

c] Tilt your head sideways with your betrayals and antagonists and angst and surprises.

Surprises are usually more like SHOCKS–maybe it’s appropriate that we’re doing these blogs as we head toward our Monstrous Month of October.

Shameless Self Promotion

For more on Betrayals, Shapeshifters, and their Importance, check out Discovering Your Novel, a guidebook to writing your novel in one year–or work faster and refer only to the sections you need.


Pro Writer Wannabe: Start Writing

6 / 7 / 8

from the List of 13 Bits of Advice to Start Writing Your Book

You can’t have a wonderful protagonist unless you have a twisty wicked antagonist. This is the key to the Start Writing 3 blog.

Dystopia that offers the dream of Utopia

When a former student recently asked for advice on how to start writing his first novel, he shared the cranial bone of his idea which gave a strong hint about his central antagonist. I’ll share the bit of bone here, since many stories, including the recent Hunger Games series and the 1970’s Logan’s Run, are built on the same brain bone.


BTW, that’s the reason ideas cannot be copyrighted, only the form that your idea takes through the words you put on the page. When someone steals your words, word after word after word, page by page, scene by scene, then that’s breaking copyright . . . and you can go get them!

So, in the bits of advice for him that I’m sharing with you in Start Writing 3, the conflict characters come after the primary characters.

6] Your antagonist sounds like the institution running the supposedly Utopian society, which means you have a masked dystopia—always fun to write the dawning realization by the protagonist who then must convince the allies of the dystopia and rally them and others to fight!

Side Excursion to Logan’s Run

a. Logan’s Run does this exceptionally well. As flawed as the film of the novel is, the film did an excellent job of shocking the audience with the switch from Utopia to Dystopia.

Typical Patriarchy: Man fully clothed, Woman in skimpy clothing

b. Along with the protagonist, the reader has a double -surprise following that realization followed by a second double-surprise with the protagonist’s allies. Then comes the quadruple-obstacle of escaping the dystopia—problem, problem, problem, problem—and still the writer is not finished with surprises. Escape only starts up a whole new set of shocks.

c. If you want to understand surprising the audience, you need to study Logan’s Run.

      • The film is highly dated and chauvinistic and therefore offensive to modern sensibilities.
      • If you want to see how much society has changed in less than 50 years, the film is the exemplar as a product of its time and the patriarchal mindset, to be much derided now–but fun to watch and point out the changed way of thinking while throwing popcorn at the screen.
      • However, it’s also a well-written story with constant movement that gets the necessary surprises right.

7] Besides this major antagonist, you will need minor antagonists more “local” than the mastermind. Make each antagonist more difficult to defeat as the story progresses.

8] Defeating the institution will seem impossible—defeating each antagonist should give a key to unlock the walls guarding the institution.

Be careful as you consider this blog’s three bits of advice. They may seem simple; they’re not. Many great writers have whole novels fall apart when they haven’t created strong antagonists. And the weaker the antagonist, the weaker your protagonist.

Surprises keep stories moving and readers reading. When you can tie multiple surprises to your antagonists, you have great story telling.

Shameless Self-Promotion

Understanding Protagonists and Antagonists and developing great characters is the focus of my writing craft book, Discovering Your Characters, second in the Discovering set and all part of the Think Like a Pro Writer series.

Discovering Your Novel goes far beyond characters and the initial start to your writing. From World Building and Character Motifs, to the Big Push of the Draft, and on to the Proof-Plus before publication, this will guide you through your first year of writing AND completing your first novel.

Completing the Novel is HUGE, BTW.