Born to be WRITEr?

If you ask an author what compelled them to become a writer, you will get a couple pat answers. Either one day I just started and haven’t stopped since, or it was the only thing that stopped the voices in my head. Those are pretty good but if you ask me, they dodge the question. How does one become an author? Sure, you have to start writing to become one. You can’t become anything without starting down the road in the first place.


Like with all things, it is not an over night process. You can simply write, but things like talent, skill and to me most importantly life experiences have to come into play. Something early on has to compel a person’s imagination to jump from the concept of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to creating worlds inside one’s heads. A singular event must take place. Something to drive a person inside their own imagination!


I can’t speak for everyone, so I guess I’ll give you my road to the insanity of being an author. If you’re strong enough, feel free to read on. Then again, I believe if you’ve got a weak stomach, now might be the time for you to begin running and don’t forget to take that left turn at Albuquerque. 


To nail down my path to one thing, I’d have to say it all started when I was six. My memories are foggy, but a severe case of pneumonia will do that to you. I spent a lot of time in the hospital because of it. My parents and grandparents brought me the usual things to entertain a kid while I was laid up in bed. They ranged from comic books, coloring books, and toys. My favorite toy was a gorilla soldier from the Planet of the Apes. I spent hours creating adventures for that old Mego action figure to go on. Since I was basically learning to breathe again, it wasn’t like I’d be playing outside or anything. That was the birth of my overactive imagination. All my story telling instincts can be traced back to the time I spent in the hospital.


But, my road to becoming an author doesn’t end there. My love of Science Fiction found its birth there too. As I write this, something else occurs to me. back then we didn’t have cable or over five hundred channels on the television to force feed us someone else’s imagination. No, we lived in a world without channels out the ying yang and video games sucking all our time. For us, pretend were the video games. Once I healed, outside was my cable box. My brothers and I had adventures in outer space, in far flung galaxies, in the old west, in darkest Africa, in the age of knights and damsels in distress, even some trips to allied Europe during World War II. You name it, we went there. Most of the time, all we had were sticks vaguely resembling guns, on mop headed horses, or with trash can lid shields and longer sticks for swords. The point I’m making is we used our imaginations to escape. We didn’t need CGIed images on our tvs to make us happy. Well, we did later on when Atari came out, but in our early formative years, our minds were enough.


I won’t totally blame my insanity on the 70s and parents who wouldn’t spring for a ninety-seven cent Lone Ranger playset from the TG&Y. We also read because our parents read and instilled that love of reading into us. For any author, a love of reading is the birth place of writing. Before I was ten, I’d read everything from school required biographies to Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Louis L’Amour and the Hardy Boys. So, as a reader I had a foundation to spur me into becoming a storyteller.


And, I had movies. Like with the cable television, we didn’t have daily doses of movies, or even VHS tapes to keep us OCDing over movies. So, once I saw Star Wars, my parents didn’t see the need to take me for the hundreds of viewings I would have liked. No, I had it once, and kept the images alive in my head. Thanks to Kenner and Lucas licensing anything and everything, I made up my own stories set in the Star Wars universe. I didn’t stop there. I had a whole crew of stories I could make up. Captain Kirk and the gang landing on the Planet of the Apes. Spiderman and the Hulk swinging in to save the day. A lot of people see toys as childish things. That’s true, but they are so much more. They’re gateways to awakening a child’s imagination. Okay, and they’re a goldmine for people on eBay to make money off old codgers like me, who want to relive their childhood.


I wish I could claim to be a writer all on my own, without giving any credit to my educational background, but alas I can’t. Several fantastic English teachers taught me a lot about writing. My sixth grade teacher made us write journals. Since I led a very boring life, instead of a diary, she ended up with quests into Middle Earth, Narnia, and a Smurf adventure that I’m surprised didn’t get me psychiatric help. My tenth grade teacher wanted short stories. From me she got an adventure straight out of a David Lee Roth music video. Again, I’m surprised I didn’t see the inside of a padded room. Not even my Art teachers were safe. They asked for drawings or paintings. They got comic books. They must have liked what they saw, because not one asked me to stop.


When real life came calling, the story telling bug never really died. It just took a back seat until I was ready to become what I’d always been, which was a writer. Again, none of that is owed entirely to me. No, the inspiration for my life’s work came from the beautiful woman who I fooled into thinking I was normal long enough for her to say I do. She taught me that expressing myself through words wasn’t weird. Running around the house dressed like Boba Fett was though. Go figure?


Let’s get back to my original question. How do you become a writer? The answer simply put is you don’t become a writer, you’re born a writer. It’s just the stuff in-between being born and picking up a pen or keyboard that prepares you to be one.


That said, I’m going to get my Fett helmet and be weird. You guys, have a great week and a Happy Thanksgiving and whatever you do. Be thankful you’re not my wife being tortured by a Fett-headed husband yelling, ‘Into the Carbonite Chamber with you!’

ImageDidn’t believe me about the helmet, now did you?

To Print or E, That is the Question.

Last weekend, I experienced my first book signing where I was the author signing. That also explains why you didn’t get your weekly giggle from me. Sorry, but I’m here now, if that counts. Back to what I was talking about. Sitting there with my own books stacked in front of me, the whole thing got me to thinking. Reading has always been my thing. I enjoy the feel of a book in my hand. It is reassuring. The weight of the cover and the pages within holding the promise of new worlds to explore, new adventures to go on, just gets my motor running. If you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure you know what I mean.


Technology has changed that a bit. Instead of books, we have pads, phones and the like to discover those worlds with. When I first started writing, the ereader had just been born so to speak. They were the size of a cell phone or smaller. I’m relatively sure that the thickness of my glasses might be the result of reading on one. I can even tell you the first book I ever read on an ereader, The Phoenix Rebellion book one by Gail Delaney. That was back in 2006 to put things in chronological order for you. After squinting my way through a few more, I decided I would be hide-bound to quote one of my favorite authors, Anne McCaffery.


Then, I bought something that changed my outlook on the situation. My first Kindle showed me I could explore worlds from a screen with the ease of a book, but without the wrist and forearm cramps to bog me down. Yeah, I tend to like big books. More bang for your buck. I’m tight-wadded like that. Seriously though, the authors I love to read tend to be long winded. Back in the day, your New York Times Bestsellers just didn’t do ebook. Ebook was for romance and erotica, and that was it. A small part of the market was Science Fiction and Fantasy but Romance was the first to fully embrace the eIndustry and that was fine.


Without the restrictions of big publishers to tell us what we couldn’t do, our imaginations bloomed. We wrote what we wanted and readers loved it. They didn’t need someone to tell them what they should be reading. They read what they wanted. Let me change that. We read what we wanted. Authors are first and foremost readers after all. I think readers everywhere ought to thank those first ebook authors, for doing more than writing books. They should be thanked for changing the industry as a whole. I don’t mean just the part about how books are read, but the entire outlook of industry, readers, and authors. I seriously doubt many of the authors around today would be around today if not for the creativity of those minds, who didn’t have limits placed on them.


Let me get back to my original point, as I sat at my table, I felt a bit hypocritical. I was signing books, but fully loved ebooks to the point I rarely read print, unless it’s a book I already have in my library, and there are tons, or an author I’ve been following for so long it feels sacrilegious to read any other way than with an actual book in my hand. That isn’t to say I don’t love book books, because I do. There is just something hypnotic about the feel of a book and the way it smells fresh off the shelf. It’s like imagination crack.


As much as I hate to admit this, I even rebuy books in the eformat that I already own in print. Why you may be asking yourself? Well, for a most practical reason. I’m getting blind as a bat. With my Kindle, I can make the font as big as I want, so I’m not squinting to read. Well, not squinting as much. Also, I can carry a few hundred, okay thousand, books around with me, so I’m never far from my addictions. For my OCD personality that’s reassuring. I firmly believe there are book thieves out there waiting to get their grubby hands on my bookshelves. Yeah, I see you out there. Now scat! Stupid figments of my imagination getting in the way of me leaving the house or blogging it would appear.


As our world grows more technologically based, there will probably come a time where print books become a thing of the past. I find that sad, but also realize it’s part of the process of moving forward. I don’t see it happening in my time. There are too many people out there just like me, hide-bound. My grandchildren, though, will probably see a time where books are oddities that grandpa and grandma used to have. You know like our kids when we mention 8-Tracks and 45s, even cassettes.


Yeah, I’m that old. Do I ever see a time where I don’t find comfort in a bulky book? No, but I see myself embracing technology and enjoying the fruits of imagination it brings. Hey, I’m the same kid who wanted to be on Star Trek and talk into a communicator, and ride a transporter beam to anywhere I wanted. That makes me part of the generation who saw the future and knew that one day I’d be a part of it. Now, I am, and so are you. We all stand on the cusp of that brave new future.


Time to take that step forward and say, ‘Beam me aboard, I can’t wait to see what comes next’.

Art of the Cover with Gwen Phifer

People judge books by the cover! I wish it tweren’t so, but it is. Hey, even I do it. Growing up, I bought many a book based solely on the dress or undress of the woman hanging off Conan’s sword arm. Don’t give me that sexist look. How many books have been bought based on the dress or undress of male models on Romance Novel covers? See, we aren’t that different now are we.

The point is authors aren’t the ones who get to make a good first impression. The cover does. True, the cover is a result of a brief description from an author or someone of the book, but the weight of a sale or no sale usually rests in the hand of an artist.

That said, I wanted to track down one of these starving individuals and get the straight scoop on what goes into making that first impression. Since my lawyers have told me that I can’t kidnap people anymore to gain interviews, I sunk to what we used to do in art school to get an artist’s attention, free food. Hey, we artists aren’t called starving for no particular reason. If it hadn’t been for popcorn and ramen noodles I might have never survived art school.

After advertising a bountiful buffet, I was able to entice the amazing Gwen Phifer to the Darkside. Amazing how cookies are better than actual money to get people in here. I did have to promise not to tickle her to get gratuitous giggles. Oh, well. You can’t win them all.

Gwen welcome to the Darkside. No, you get the cookies after the interview. Please put down the Oreos and tell us a little bit about yourself. You know, what drove you into the graphic medium, influences… the usual.

Seriously, put down the cookies.

ImageGwen: B-but you got those fatty thin mint lookalike Oreos… I haven’t had those in forever! Okay, okay. Since you’re holding those cookies hostage… I’d have to say I never really “got into” art but more was born into it. My mom is a college art professor and a painter. So there was always something to play around with at an early age- paints, etchings, watercolor, papier-mâché, Photoshop CS back in the day. She has been my biggest inspiration and motivator. So I went into Illustration at Savannah College of Art & Design, mostly because I thought art was my talent and hey, why not get into a profession making money doing the thing I love? I can hear the mental breaks screeching now… wait, what? Art isn’t my talent? Nah, I’m one of those analytical creative thinkers. Organization is my talent. Art keeps me sane.

So I realized after graduating in ’09 with the Great Recession that I had to reevaluate everything. The job that I thought was going to be there after college- wasn’t. My skills as an illustrator- not needed. So while I went through some depression and serious burn out, I got married to my looong time best friend and high school sweetheart and started teaching out at the barn where I learned to ride horses. (There’s a romance novel in that I’m sure of it.)

[Hollywood Dreams and Buttercream- Sandra Sookoo My first illustrated DBP cover. I’m kinda in love with it.]

Image Jmo: Cool. I totally get the burnout and no jobs after college. Been there, done that. It”s sort of why I’m a writer. That and the voices wouldn’t shut up. So, how did all that end up with you becoming a cover artist?

Gwen: Ha! Well, during college it was always a running joke with my roommates that I should illustrate romance novel covers. The majority of my library consists of fantasy/sci-fi/romance books sprinkled with some anatomy and color theory books. So when my aunt sent me the Desert Breeze Publishing job posting from one of her writing forums, I threw caution to the wind and jumped.

[Dreams- Katie Charles Pretty much hit close to home on that one.]Image

Jmo: Well, I’m glad you spit into the wind and jumped. At least, I think you spit. Why else throw caution into it. In the intro I said that the cover is the first impression of a book. How close to the truth do you think that is? If you agree, how much pressure does that put on you to make that impression unforgettable?

Gwen: Very true. As you go down the shelves, you’re looking at spines, feeling the weight and quality of the paper, glancing at the titles and the pretty pictures… or on the flip side, flicking through Amazon and taking in dozens of covers at a time. It’s split-second, subconscious decisions. The best part about being a cover artist is that I get to browse through books as “research”. Shh – don’t tell my husband! In all seriousness though, I look to see what catches my eye first, what doesn’t work, what are the trends in different genres, etc. It’s a BIG responsibility that I take very seriously, especially for the newer authors. Established authors have a following that will sometimes forgive a less than stellar cover. For new authors that is the first impression on a new reader, one that can make or break a sale.

[Perfect on Paper- Patty Froese was one of the first covers were I started getting into the swing of becoming a cover artist.]

Jmo: I’m a shelf shopper too. NothingImage better than looking at all the pretty covers. It also made me wonder before I became an author how much input an author has into creating a book’s cover. I’m sure my readers wonder that, too. Another point while we’re on the subject, how deep into a book do you go to discover the heart of a book, or do you depend on the author to give you the essence of the work?

Gwen: Who else knows their baby as well as the creator? I wish I had time to read every book that I get to do the cover for, but DBP has a great thing going with their Cover Art Info Sheets. It breaks a story down to its essence. Now, how much the author puts into telling me all those fine points is how far I can go. Oops, there’s my organization talent rearing its head! I do so love to fill out questionnaires… What do you mean; other people hate it?

Jmo: You’re weird! Insert laugh here, but seriously, I’d like to go a bit further into a continuance of that question. As an artist myself I know that it’s hard to separate yourself from any work of art. Like with writing, the art itself is an extension of the artist. So, with the focus of the cover the book itself, how much of yourself do you feel goes into a cover?

Gwen: It’s hard not to put a bit of yourself into a cover. Time, talent, critiques, revisions all refine a cover into something worth putting out there. Eventually I have to cut the cord, but there is always a sense of maternal pride and recognition when I see one of my covers floating out in the world. I don’t forget them.

Jmo: We artists feel the same way about our books. I know as authors, we all have an image set in our brain on what our cover should look like, but that seldom translates into a viable selling point to bring people past the cover to what’s inside. Before I smack your hand for cookie snitching, if you could tell an author one thing when it comes to cover expectations what would it be?

Gwen: Hey! But they are just sitting there, begging to be eaten! Okay, well, sometimes the first idea is the most horrible, overused, cliché idea possible. And that’s okay. We all have to work past that and we’ll probably come up with something better. I tell authors (and clients) that they are great with written words or verbal descriptions, but what is good on paper or in your head isn’t so good as a marketable image. It’s like comparing books to movies. Some things work while other things don’t. A lot of our choices as cover artists are backed up by experience and that research I told you about. Of course, I’m always happy to go back and explain my reasons when asked.


[Time After Time series- Tami Dee and Lynette Endicott There have been so many good revisions in this series because we are constantly hashing things out. Communication, it’s a good thing!]

Jmo: On the flip side of that, how hard is it for you to literally take someone else’s ‘baby’ and bring to life something that has been living inside their head for who knows how long?

Gwen: Oh my goodness, yes! It takes an insane amount of trust for authors to hand over their baby and let someone else give them a face. That person doesn’t know their baby like they do! I’m pretty sure one of the reasons Gail started DBP was because some “cover artist” mutilated her baby… with actual babies on the cover and naked off-description men! It was horrible. There are mental scars from what I saw.

Some authors have a ton of trust in me and will give me free rein with a couple of suggestions here and there.


[Paradise Pines series- Paisley Kirkpatrick just gave me the building blocks and let me run with it. Lasso Springs series- Kathleen Ball only insisted that there be a cowboy on each cover.]

Others will fight for a certain design element. One of my favorites that came out soooo much the better for it was Caina Fuller’s Good Shepherd series. I had my happy little design puttering along, but Caina had a vision of what she wanted (luckily she’s a cover artist too) and while there were a LOT of revisions that completely overhauled my initial plans, I love how that series turned out.


[Good Shepherd series- Caina Fuller]

Jmo: Since it’s apparent you’re not going to leave those Oreos alone, what advice would you give aspiring artists about being a cover artist? Then, yes you get an entire row of Oreos and all the milk you can drink.

Gwen: OMG, so good! Mmm! Oh yes, ah hem! Well, always be on the look out for covers and take notes to try and figure out what makes a cover eye-catching. While schooling isn’t as important, you need to develop your design sense somehow – through books, classes, what have you in order to know why placement of certain elements matter and why one design works over another. Knowledge is power and all that.


[Night of the Gryphon series- Tasarla Romaney was one of my first series with DBP and I learned sooo much on it!]

Jmo: Gwen, thanks for stopping by today. I hope we’ve entertained and informed the readers about what all goes into a cover. I’ll be the first to say it’s not an easy job but you make all your covers look simply amazing. So before you trot off with all my Oreos, and what looks to be a gallon of milk, please let the readers know where they can find more about you and your wonderful art.

Gwen: I wish I could show you all my art, however there is just too much. So you can check out my website at where you can find all my covers and their buying links! (I’m so proud of myself, website building is not my specialty. Blood, sweat and tears went into making it.) Plus, some sketchbook work, paintings, and headshots from my other job- a horse head illustrator for a simulated horse racing game- are all up there too. Jay and readers, I had a blast! Until we meet again!