Witch of the Week #1

Screw vampires. For me, witches have always been the best monsters. (There’s a witch in my book.) They got to do more fun stuff than princesses, and they generally know a lot more useful things as well. So I thought I’d write a bit about my favourite witches, starting with Griselda (“She of the Evil Eye”) from the 1955 Danny Kaye comedy, The Court Jester.

Griselda (played by Mildred Natwick) is the personal lady-in-waiting of the Princess Gwendoline (essayed by a very young Angela Lansbury), whose protection is pretty much the only thing keeping her from a short walk to a hot bonfire. So Griselda’s pretty invested in keeping Gwendoline happy – and when Danny Kaye shows up, and Gwendoline falls hard and fast, Griselda isn’t taking any chances…


Further proof that Griselda’s powers are awe-inspiring: this spell never once worked for me in elementary school, no matter how many times I tried it.

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I don’t make these things up, you know.

Weird stuff really does happen in small English villages. (I mentioned I’m from a small English village, right?) This happened in my village a couple of weeks ago:

Jogger Attacked Five Times by Dive-Bombing Buzzard

My impression was that buzzards tend to go after things that are generally not quite as lively as joggers, but there’s always one, right?

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Interior Design: Things That Martha Never Considered

When I was in copy editing school (which is actually A Thing), my instructor pointed out that, since Gutenberg first slapped his moveable type on the press and started churning out copies of God’s perennial bestseller (my words, not hers), the publishing industry has, over time, honed the book so that it represents a piece of perfect technology – essentially, it’s only when things go wrong that the fact that people had to think about them in the first place becomes obvious.

Having a solid interior design for your book, if you’re making a print version, helps things not to go obviously wrong. It not only makes your final book look professional, it also helps readability by ensuring that there aren’t an inconsistent number of words on the page, that the leading (the spacing between the lines) doesn’t make the text look smushed, that the margins aren’t disproportionate. It takes care of a host of details that you may not even have considered, but which stop your physical book getting in the way of your story.

I am not a designer, so I don’t really have any tips on making the inside of your book look top-notch, but I can give you a list of things I was thinking about when I was preparing to work with a designer to make sure we covered all the stuff I needed and didn’t end up creating a ton more work for her and becoming a footnote on Clients from Hell. So here are some things you might want to consider:

  • What are your specifications? What will be the trim size (i.e., the final dimensions) of the printed book?
  • How many words do you want to appear on a page? This is a really tough one to calculate, and to be honest, I ended up pulling books that matched the trim size I wanted off my shelves, finding pages that contained no dialogue, and counting the words myself. (Never let it be said that self-publishing is not a barrel of laffs.) Remember, this will impact the final total of pages in your book (and possibly therefore your print costs).
  • What do you want your running heads/feet to be?
  • How many colours do you want to use? (This is not as complex as it sounds, as the number is usually “one” (for books that only print in black and white), “two” (obvious), or “four” (full colour productions.)

You also need to think about all of the different elements in your manuscript. Do you have chapter numbers (Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and so on)? Do you have chapter titles? Have you included block quotes anywhere? Is there anything that’s going to need to look a bit different than a basic paragraph, in other words? (Even basic paragraphs need a bit of thought, as they’re usually set flush left after a heading or title, and only indented after that.) Does your story include letters? Emails? Text messages? Poetry? These are all things you should talk to your designer about, because you need to figure out how you want them to look. “Normal” is fine – but you need to define what “normal” is…

Also, be nice when you’re working with designers. They’re creative people too.

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Alphabet Soup (Self-Publishing Flavour)

So I’ve been dealing with two key ingredients in publishing’s alphabet soup: the ISBN and the CIP data. Before I say anything else a quick reminder: I’m doing this whole exercise in Canada, and if you’re based somewhere else, the rules are probably different and all I can tell you — until someone invents a functional Time Turner — is that Google is your friend. Sorry about that.

Also, this (as will become clear very quickly) is not a comprehensive guide to Obtaining an ISBN and CIP Data, but it is basically part of the Giant List of Things I Had to Think About, so I thought it would be worth posting a (very) brief introduction.

Essentially, here are some things I learned:

The ISBN is the International Standard Book Number. This is the descendent of a code called the Standard Book Numbering code, invented in 1965 by a professor called Gordon Foster working at Trinity College, in Dublin (alma mater of Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. Ireland is awesome.) In Canada, you can get one for free when you create an account as a publisher with Library and Archives Canada. (I work with ISBNs on a daily basis; I tell you, when you get one that’s got your book’s name next to it, it’s a good feeling.) You go to https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/isn/041011-1000-e.html, fill out the form, and they set you up and send you the number via email fairly promptly. One thing I will say, though: they do ask for a lot of data about your physical book, so if you’re doing a print run, you’ll need to have a fair idea of your trim size (i.e., the physical dimensions of your book when it’s printed), binding (paperback? hardcover?), and prospective date of publication, or you won’t be able to fill out the form. ISBNs are free in Canada, to encourage Canadian culture, so if you’re a Canadian writer who’s been putting things off for a bit – well, you have no excuse: you have officially been Encouraged.

The CIP — Cataloging in Publication — data is also available for free from Collections Canada and is the apparently incomprehensible collection of letters, names and punctuation marks that you find on the back of the title page, starting with Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication. If you want to go and have a look to make sure I’m not making things up, go ahead. I’ll just wait here.

<makes cup of tea while waiting>

See? Not making things up. This data is written in Librarian, and is very much of concern if you are a Librarian (bless ‘em all) trying to figure out where the book in your hand should go on your shelves so that the Readers (bless ‘em all!) can find the book that the Author has sweated blood and tears over. The CIP program is also, to quote their website,

a voluntary program of cooperation between publishers and libraries. It enables the cataloguing of books before they are published, and the prompt distribution of this cataloguing information to booksellers and libraries.

This is Not A Bad Thing. Again, you assemble all your info – author details, print run, and so forth – fill in the form, and you’re away (although they can take a while to get back to you, so if you’ve applied, it might be good to make a note of them and follow up before you publish, because you don’t want your CIP data to arrive when you’re already sitting there on a giant pile of money with your last remaining copy of the print run in your hand*). Three things to note here: 1) CIP data is only available if you’re doing a print run; 2) your print run has to be more than 100 copies; and 3) if you submit your application and then change your details (such as your title) before you publish and don’t let the nice CIP people know, you will ruin the lives of librarians everywhere. Don’t do that. Be nice to librarians. They deserve it.

My tea is getting cold. Back in a bit.

*I’m told authors do this all the time. Especially the self-published ones.

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I think the door to this blog is stuck.

<sound of splintering wood>



<sniff, splutter>

<looks around as dust cloud settles>

My goodness, it’s been a while. I just checked the date on my last post and discovered that it had been a full two years since I last put anything up.

Where does the time go?

Actually, that’s a totally disingenuous rhetorical question. (I’m not sure what the emoticon is for “crazyexcited about this thing I’m working on; dying to talk about it, can’t think of a good segueway; who needs words when you’re a writer anyway?” If there’s a word for it, it’s probably German.) I wrote a book!  I’m really excited about it! It’s set in a small village in the heart of England (total coincidence: I’m actually from a small village in the heart of England, albeit a different one, that I maintain would have been a lot more interesting if it had had magic and monsters in it.) And it has witches! (well, one.) And monsters! (lots.) And British-made cars! (of variable quality.) Seriously. I’m so stoked about this thing.

I’ve decided to self-publish it (why? Whole other post; it’s a-comin’), and given that this is going to involve a lot more self-promotion than I’m generally used to, I’m going to change the focus of the blog a bit and use it to track my adventures in the hitherto uncharted (by me) scary dark forest of self-publishing. Will my story and I be swallowed up by the darkness, never to be seen again? Eaten by ferocious Marketing Dragons? Mutilated by the terrifying Social Media Hydra? Beset by ghoulishly deformed running heads, spiky stacks of hyphens, and pagination that defies not only the laws of mathematics, but also of sanity? Or will we survive and emerge bloody, embattled, and psychologically scarred, but ultimately victorious and ready to fight another day?

Wanna find out? Stay with me. Best pack a lunch.

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Frontier of Fear: An Interview with Gemma Files, author of A Rope of Thorns

Spells and curses crackle across the arid landscapes of the Old West once again, with the release of Gemma Files’ A Rope of Thorns, the sequel to last year’s Black Quill Award–winning novel and Stoker nominee A Book of Tongues. But it hasn’t been an especially easy journey for the author of the acclaimed Hexslinger series.

“I was telling one of my friends the other day that in a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve been working on the same novel for three years, in three different instalments,” says Files. One of the issues that she ran into with the first book was that she was rapidly approaching her publisher’s cut-off point in terms of word limit, with no end in sight. Fortunately, the folk at ChiZine press, decided to publish Files’ occult western tale as two books. Files was hard at work on the second book when she discovered history repeating itself. “Exactly the same thing happened that happened last time,” admits Files. “I got to 80,000 words, realized there was no way it’d be finished by 100,000, and began to rethink my plans. This isn’t going to happen again if I can help it, which is why I’m working extra-hard on plotting things out in advance, this time ’round.”

Working on a series, rather than a standalone novel, presents particular challenges to an author. “Just like the primary challenge of a third book is how to wrap things up effectively and entertainingly, the challenge of a second book is how to make it past the general saggy middle problem,” says Files. “I concentrated a lot on keeping it fast-paced, with a fair deal of crap-talking/hex-slinging action, but also a sub-set of character development under fire and laying in details which will (hopefully) pay off in Book Three. What’s been consistently exciting and frustrating throughout the journey thus far is that whenever I lay in something that just seems like an alchemically-generated New Fun Thing, I realize it usually brings along a bunch of attendant game-changing elements that I now have to develop and integrate further into the narrative’s inherent logic along with it.” She cites in particular the established rule in the first book that “hexes”—beings with immense magical powers—cannot work together, at risk of their very existence, a rule which, in the second book, shifts with devastating results. “That sounded  neat and utterly organic when I first did it—and I really do think it is, in an epic/operatic way,” says Files, “but I’m still dealing with the consequences.”

Another shift in the second novel is that the power of magic is very much more connected to the earth, as opposed to the first book, where it is very much connected to the power of language. Files attributes the change to a shift in focus from the cerebral Reverend Asher Rook, protagonist of the first book, to the visceral, emotional, and highly sexual Chess Pargeter, the main hex in the second. “The Rev likes words because he’s educated and erudite yet almost completely hypocritical, which means he can use them to lie and seduce and confuse equally,” says Files. “Chess is an uneducated whore-get turned outlaw, a man of reflexive, perverse action who’s always relied on his gut to show him which way to jump, powering his way through life on his guns, his fists and his dick.”

One thing that remains the same, however, if the focus on the characters’ sexuality—which, in all its terrifying glory, has been significant in the horror genre since the early gothic novels and Dracula. The sexual relationship between Chess and the Reverend was central to the first novel, and continues to inform—heavily—the second. “It’s always sort of amused me that some people seem to be just as afraid of having their sexuality realigned as they are of, say, far more palpable and universal fears like bodily harm, death and the loss of those you love,” says Files. “Again, this is one of the inherent problems with terms like Gay Horror, which I’m proud yet still slightly discomfited—as a straight-identified person—to have applied to my work. Ultimately, it’s just a simple human truth that we fear the Other, the creature who resembles us in some way but differs greatly in others, as much as we rightly fear to be Othered, to be told that because we differ in some way from “the norm”, we’re no longer going to be accorded the same rights and privileges… Horror needs monsters, and it’s hard to accept that we truly are all we know and need of both Heaven and Hell.”

“One way I’ve tried to get around this is obviously by creating sexually transgressive characters whom far more readers than I would have ever expected seem to have grown to identify with and care about. But another way is that when you boil all my ‘monsters’ in the Hexslinger universe down—even the incredibly powerful and alien ones—they all contain a distant seed of humanity, which is both their strength and their weakness.”

One of those ‘monsters’ of course, is Chess himself, a phenomenally compelling character: flamboyant, passionate, and destructive. How would Files describe her own relationship with Chess Pargeter? “Well, I certainly can’t say he’s not a bit of a wish-fulfillment character for me, in a couple of different ways,” admits Files. “I’ve mentioned before that I’m a slasher [writer of slash fiction], so I’ll completely cop to the fact that I’m getting a personal charge out of his sexual escapades: It’s my kink, and I don’t see any shame in it. But at the same time, I’m also an angry person, a perverse person, a person who’s loved unwisely and paid the price; Chess gets to take his revenge on the world, do stuff I never could, and I get to come along on the ride. He gets to be the villain, the anti-hero, maybe even the hero, but definitely the fate-chosen protagonist of his own story. After which, best of all, I get to give him and the people around him the sort of satisfying character arcs that real life so seldom provides!”

And we get to know Chess much better in the second novel: he’s still violent and impetuous, but as his powers as a hex—and an avatar—continue to grow, he’s forced into some tough realizations about who he is and the responsibilities that his identity brings. “Chess as an avatar of Xipe Totec, the Red Tezcatlipoca—the primal Year-King sacrifice, whose blood makes all things grow—is connected to the earth in a way he can barely comprehend,” explains Files. “And he doesn’t want to control these things, because in order to do so, he’d have to become more Xipe Totec than he is Chess, a prospect which pisses him off to the extreme…but the thing is, he’s changing too, even though he doesn’t want to. A year ago, he wouldn’t’ve cared how many “innocent” people became collateral damage, as long as he got what he wanted. But the thing about being a god is, you sort of have to care, because other people—normal, common people—and their devotion is what keeps you alive.”

Chess is also forced to reimagine his relationship with women in the second book, which contains significantly more female characters than the first—a development that Files describes as “absolutely deliberate.” She also notes that the increased presence of women in the second novel compels Chess to grow up and develop as a character. “We’ve already heard him say that he thinks most women are tougher than most men, but the very fact of his own sexuality means he tends to think of them as aliens—they “ain’t his meat,” and he ain’t theirs. And thus far, he’s been able to avoid women by confining himself to a male-slanted world of soldiering, outlawry, criminality, on the fringes of society… but part of the Western narrative is that that state of affairs can’t last forever. Things change, and much as he hates the very thought of it, Chess has to change with them.”

“When I was writing A Book of Tongues, part of what I set out to do was to intentionally put a gay male relationship front and centre, and I’m proud that came off as well as it did,” she continues. “But by privileging that point of view, I unintentionally cut women almost entirely out of the picture—I mean, there are female characters, but they’re pretty much an assortment of whores and/or monsters, which needed to change. Because this is where you run into the difficult distinction between representation and representativeness: I don’t want to be seen as making statements about how ‘all women are like…’ any more than I want to be seen making statements about how all gay guys are like Chess, all bi guys are like the Rev, or all straight guys are like Morrow. It’s inaccurate, dicey—and worst of all, it’s boring.”

The universe will continue to expand in the third book, A Tree of Bones, on which Files is already working hard, and she promises that we’ll see more of her complex and intriguing characters. What else can we look forward to?

“Bloodshed! Monsters! Experimental arcanistry! Hexation aplenty!” says Files. “Plus, maybe a giant spider.”

Sounds hextastic.





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Cover Story: An Interview with Designer and Artist Erik Mohr

It’s a truism that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but at ChiZine Publications, the tomes—from trade paperbacks to limited edition hardcovers and ebooks—are graced by evocative, haunting jackets that fully do justice to both the content and the press’s mandate of putting out high-quality, thought-provoking genre fiction. Those covers are all the work of artist Erik Mohr.

Mohr studied fine arts and showed regularly in his early twenties; he later moved toward a more lucrative career in illustration and design, working on consumer and custom magazines. It was then he became involved with ChiZine. “As an outlet, I would often do quick digital ‘drawings’ of stories that I was inspired by,” he says. “I sent one of these ‘drawings’ to a friend whose story had been published on Chizine.com. He liked it so much that he forwarded it to the publisher, Brett Savory. When it came time to consider the cover art for my friend’s first novel—and first book published at CZP—I offered to illustrate and design the cover. I’ve been doing the covers ever since!”

Mohr has designed book covers for many other publishing houses as well, including McClelland and Stewart, Groundwood Books, and Fitzhenry and Whiteside. I’m interested to know what are the challenges specific to designing a book cover.

“Capturing the mood of an entire book,” he says. “I am often drawn to a single scene or moment of the story. This sometimes works if it is a significant turning point in the story or a compelling image that drives the storyline, etc… But more often than not, it is more important to capture overall “feel.” Collections of short stories are tricky for that same reason. Also, you don’t want to give it all away. You need to have a cover that piques the readers interest, gets them asking questions and ultimately opening the book. It’s advertising and my job is selling the story. If I can get a reader excited enough to open the book, then I have done my job.”

Capturing the feel of the book, of course, requires a level of familiarity with the manuscript. “I prefer it when I have a chance to read the whole manuscript,” says Mohr. “I have gotten really good at speed reading, skimming, reading long synopses, reading short synopses, emails from the authors, condensed emails from the editors and even direct suggestions from the authors and publishers—but, as I said, I prefer to curl up with the whole MS and leisurely read it over three to four days.”

The level of involvement of the authors in the cover design process can vary from press to press, but Mohr says that, as a rule, he prefers to work with publishers before the authors. “I think it is good to have an outside view of the book,” he says. “The authors tent to have very literal ideas for covers and once I have heard their ideas, I have a hard time shaking them from the back of my mind. I much prefer to start on my own and so far the authors have been really pleased with what I come up with.”

This isn’t surprising. Mohr’s covers are both stunning and original, bucking the current trends in dark fiction book jackets. One thing that has struck me lately, when I’ve visited the horror and YA sections of large bookstores, is the monumental influence of the Twilight series on book jacket design. What does Mohr think of the current trend? “There are always fads in design,” he says. “What I find interesting is how the fad plays out as other people are influenced by it or copy it. The Twilight covers where very striking, and were a real departure for vampire lit. The hands holding the apple was exquisite. Simple, striking and conceptual. It didn’t fall for so many of the genre clichés.”

Cover of Kelley Armstrong's novel Broken (2006)

“The Kelly Armstrong Otherworld series is trying to capture that same simplicity but still using some of the clichés,” he continues. “The original [trade paperback of Broken] 2006 cover’s red rose is a bit clichéd and carries more symbolism than is necessary for the cover, while the TPB 2010 reprint with the figure under fabric is mysterious and poses more questions than it answers.”

Cover of the 2010 edition of Broken

“I think that the reprint is more successful as a cover. Don’t get me started on the Haunted 2010 TPB cover. I love the melted candle. I think that shit is smart, sexy and, while it fits snugly into the genre, it is cliché-free!”

What other covers have especially inspired him? “I loved airbrush art as a kid and I remember this cover of Robot Dreams by Asimov,” he says. “It’s creepy, serene, and beautifully executed. I love it! It still gives me chills when I look at it.”


Another inspiration for Mohr was Night Cry magazine.


“I read that magazine cover to cover until the pages fell out,” he confesses. “It was creepy and scary and vicious and sexy… I was 12. I still don’t read much. When I do read, I like to start and finish a book in a couple of days.”

I ask him which of his own covers is his favourite.

“You want me to pick a favourite child?” he says. “You evil woman!”

He cites the cover of Simon Logan’s 2010 book, Katja from the Punk Band, published by ChiZine.

“I love communist propaganda posters and I did tonnes of research to put this cover together,” he says. “The girl is made up of a number of different women…  If I had to, though, I would say that my favourite cover is a bit of a collaboration. Napier’s Bones was lot of fun to work on.”

“The story was intense and I loved the marrying of math and magic and how numbers were everywhere in the book,” he says. “I roughed the concept right away after reading a few chapters and it worked. We refined it from there, but what really made it sing was the raised UV when it was printed. Corey (Beep) Lewis is the book designer and his addition of the UV along with fleshing out the interior really made it pop. Running your hands along the cover is really creepy!”

Which, really, is as it should be.

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