Book Design

There’s something that I’m really coming to like about being with a small press: inclusion.

A little general background before we move on to specifics. Things like cover art and book design are business decisions. At a large press, the marketing department has a big say in those things, the author not so much. Self-published authors have much more control; they can choose their own artists and editors, and even overrule them, but it’s a ton of work to do everything a publisher does, and they have to pay for all those specialists.

Working with a small press can put an author on middle ground. You don’t get the marketing clout of the giants, but you don’t have to surrender to the machine. For me, this is turning out to be a happy place: Five Rivers keep me involved. Cover artist Ann Crow and I exchanged emails for weeks.

I got an email the other day, it seems there’s a new guy on the Avians team. Éric Desmarais is working on the book design. He’ll be setting up the interior layout to make the pages look nice. That includes details like the choice of font, whether a chapter title falls at the top of the page or halfway down, the amount of white space (blank paper) between scenes and chapters and a slew of other details.

In a nutshell, Avians is about girls who fly gliders. Éric wanted to know what the gliders looked like. He was thinking some little glider silhouettes would make nice scene separators, but he wanted to get them right. I approve, because the gliders in question are unusual. They’re like a sailplane from our 1930’s, of wood and fabric construction, but they carry a wicker cargo pod that they can drop.  Stock clipart isn’t going to do them justice.

So I got out my graphics software, and drew these:trainer-3-view-003

Éric likes them, so I’m fairly confident they’ll be in the finished book. They’ll be small, of course, about the size of a paperclip, which is why I kept them so simple. You might be asking why three designs, why not just one? Well, Avians is written from three points of view, and each change of viewpoint requires a scene change. Éric says he likes the idea of a different graphic to introduce the scenes for each character. Raisa, the main character, will get the head-on view; her rival and sometime antagonist Mel will get the side view; and Corby, who has a more mature perspective, will get the overhead view.

I’m guessing that some readers will never make the connection. That’s the thing about book design. It’s like the frame around a picture: it’s jarring if it’s ugly, but if it’s harmonious, you don’t really notice it except as part of the whole. I just grabbed my Kobo to look at A Town Called Forget, by C.P. Hoff, because it had nice design. There’s a little graphic of a stack of letters tied up with a ribbon at the start of each chapter, and that’s very appropriate, because the letters from home are a key feature of the story. I checked the credits, and book design was by Éric Desmarais. I’m excited to have him on my side. I think his work is going to be beautiful. I’ll notice, and I hope you will, too.

A Good Year for Reading and Writing

I’m going to buck the trend. Instead of doing a review of the year right around New Year’s Day, I’ve held off until my birthday.

2016 was a good year for me. In January, I tapped my critique group for help with the first thirty pages of Avians. The members of Fantasy Five made powerful suggestions, and when I submitted the sample to Five Rivers Publishing, Senior Editor Robert Runté promptly requested a full manuscript. That led to a contract offer a couple of months later.

Editing ensued, so not a lot of other writing got done, and just as I was getting back to it, I got hooked up with cover artist Anne Crow and got side-tracked by that.

Short stories in particular took a big hit. I did write a handful later in the year but my submissions flagged badly. Overall, the trend has been for my stories to get serious consideration at pro markets. Acceptance, not so much. I like to think this means that my writing is okay, and that more submissions would result in more sales. An old favourite of mine drew fine feedback from the acquisition readers at a YA magazine and I’ll be rethinking that one in light of their comments.

I had high hopes for cracking the pro market in 2016. A story speculating that the Chinese could have developed powered flight about a thousand years ago clawed its way out of the slush pile to the senior editor’s desk at a top market in November, but as of New Year’s, I have not heard one way or the other. I will soon have to query. Groan/cringe. I hate querying, because it feels like tempting fate, but eventually it must be done. I once let a story ride for six months, only to learn that the publication had lost it in the shuffle of a reorganization. Update: just received a form rejection one day before my birthday. Yay. Sent it elsewhere the same evening.

Lately, I’m working on Bandits, the sequel to Avians. I roughed it out in 2015, then let it age for several months before revisiting it. Because I wrote it in a month (yes, NaNoWriMo) I expect it to need a lot of work. It does, but it’s not as awful as I feared. There are some good bones in the draft, and some nice lines, too. The story needs more obstacles, more conflict and more showing, so revisions are proceeding. Slowly.

I did attend some conventions this year. I dropped Winnipeg’s Key-Con and tried When Words Collide in Calgary instead. It was the biggest one I’ve been to yet, and I did a slide-show presentation on Alternative Aviation in SF there (see the Glossary link at the side of this blog for the online version). A month later I went to Ottawa for my third Can-Con, where I did a reading from Avians and moderated a panel on Sub-Genres of SF. At the end of the year, I went to the first ever Winter Wheat, in Portage la Prairie. If it had been any smaller, we could have held it in my living room, but it was great fun. They all were.

2017 will see the release of Avians in August, with a launch at When Words Collide. There should be a cover reveal a month or two prior to that. I love doing readings from it, so I’m thinking of putting audio files of the first few scenes on this website. Probably the first chapter, in instalments.

Last but not least, I read some wonderful books in 2016, despite the lack of a big bookstore in my hometown and the failure of my e-reader. My Kobo made it through the laugh-out-loud A Town Called Forget, from fellow Five Rivers author C.P. Hoff, but caffed halfway through David D. Levine’s Arabella of Mars, forcing me to finish reading it on my phone because I was on a road trip and I couldn’t leave it alone. I’d call it Age of Sail meets Martian Pulp: an atmosphere pervades the solar system and square-riggers sail between the planets. It was a hoot.

My out and out favourite read of the year was Updraft, by Fran Wilde. Feisty protagonist in desperate situations. Plus, hey, alternative aviation in the form of hang-gliderish wings of bone and silk. Sky-Fi! World-building up to here, and beautifully unexplained. Why are there towers of bone growing above the clouds? We never find out, and it doesn’t really matter: it’s just a place where the story happens. Rushed to buy the sequel, Cloudbound, but I’m not as invested in the protagonist early on, and I may or may not finish it.

Other books I tackled on my smartphone, tablet or desktop computer included most of this year’s crop of Aurora nominees. I was most impressed with A Daughter of No Nation. I read it last because the title didn’t grab me. Don’t make the same mistake. A.M. Dellamonica won the novel category with it, beating out some of my friends, and I can’t say she didn’t deserve to. I also enjoyed Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise. A computer nerd discovers she can do magic. Sometimes. Probably.

My favourite in the YA category was Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond. It didn’t win, but I enjoyed Jayne Barnard’s light style and fun with character names. I’d already read the anthology Second Contacts (in trade paperback) because Bundoran Press is a reliable source of solid collections. I found one or two of the other anthologies a little too narrow in scope to hold my interest.

Speaking of anthologies, I picked up Clockwork Canada (also in trade paperback) at the dealer’s room at Can*Con. It’s a steampunk/alternative history anthology. There are some fine pieces in there, and I grabbed it every time I had a break in the schedule.

I got a new e-reader at Christmas, so I hope to do more reading in 2017.

I’ll have to wrap this up because the dog just ate Caroline’s glasses off the coffee table. I guess it’s time for walkies.

Reading is Not the Same After Writing

This is true for me. I used to read a hundred pages or so before I’d give up on a book, and if I put it down it was usually because I didn’t care about the characters. Now there are other reasons and sometimes they kick in sooner.

A Writer's Path


by Samantha Fenton

One of the most surprising things I found had happened as a result from starting to write seriously, was how I read books differently. After writing a novel, I can’t look at a book the same way again – which makes sense, right?

Picture someone close to you deciding to play soccer. You don’t know much about soccer. Turns out, that someone is really into it, and you end up going to a lot of their games and listening to them talk about it all the time. You’re going to have a different view about soccer now because of it. Now, maybe you can watch a soccer game on tv without being bored. You can watch a player shoot a goal and you can say, “wow! What a great play!” Or see the player make a pass a say, “what a terrible pass. They should’ve held onto it!”

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Dog Story

We writers are known to be cat people. When it comes to walking on a keyboard, dogs are useless. But I married a dog person, and for decades, she has wished for one.



This is Piper. She is, according to It’s A Dog’s Life, a Husky cross. Crossed with what, they don’t say. Her reddish coat, bushy tail and narrow snout make me wonder if she’s part fox.

She’s large enough to hike with me, but small enough to not pull Caroline right off her feet. She’s unbelievably quiet and tranquil, but a fussy eater.

We went to Tunnel Island today. I hike there a lot, and I even do a little trail maintenance now and then, such as clearing fallen trees with a Swede saw. This was our second visit together, and although it is common practice there to let dogs off the leash, after less than a week together, I wasn’t ready to turn her loose just yet. I’ve been using a retractable leash to give her a little freedom of movement.

There was a blanket of fresh snow on all the trails, and once we got to where the A and B trails forked about a mile from the parking lot, there were no more footprints. We’d be breaking trail. We did the easier A trail last time, so today I picked B. Piper trotted happily ahead. She hesitated at the first footbridge, but after pausing to look through the planks at the ravine below, she decided it was okay with her if it was okay with me.

All went well until about halfway round the island. Then an off-the-trail excursion to look at a squirrel got her tangled in the undergrowth. Rather than floundering uphill through the deep snow in the bush to get her, I coaxed her to come back the way she went in. That went well enough at first, but as she tried a little too awkwardly to negotiate the last sapling, she pulled right out of her collar. And took off.

She sprinted down the trail right out of sight, but I was reassured when she came back to check on me before running ahead again. She was acting like all the other dogs I meet on Tunnel Island, the ones who have established relationships with their humans. I let her have her way for twenty minutes, then I realized that if we got separated, she had neither her collar nor her tag to help people reunite us. When she waited at the next junction to see which trail I wanted, I gave her a treat and put her collar back on. But not the leash. She was having way too much fun, and she was being pretty responsible. We carried on like that for a while, and I decided that I would reattach the leash when we approached the parking lot and the highway. She was with me, more or less, all the way to the railway bridge. She paused there to see some ravens, and I figured she’d catch up like before. But a couple of minutes later, when I went to see about putting her leash back on, she was nowhere in sight. I called for her, but she didn’t come. We’re only so-so on her coming when I call.

I backtracked to the railway bridge. No Piper. I returned to the car in case she had outrun me in the woods somehow. No Piper. I went back to the bridge and checked the pond and river for dog footprints and broken ice. Nope. At the railway bridge, there were dog prints that looked like hers. They didn’t go near the water. They went up to the railway tracks.

I clambered up the steep, snow-covered embankment. No dog, and I could see a long way. I called some more. The pawprints went along the tracks. Were they even hers? I saw a few spots of blood. Had she  fought an animal, or been hit by a train? Up ahead there were ravens on a kill.

Fussy eater, my ass. What does a husky cross like better than dog food? A deer carcass. This one, lying by the tracks, was mostly reduced to hide. Piper was happily gnawing on it. The ravens were not impressed.

She let me put her leash back on. I reeled it all the way in and we returned to the car handcuffed together. She obediently got in. I didn’t give her a treat, but she found one on the back seat from earlier.

At home, we were tired from our adventure and napped together on the couch. Surprisingly, Rufus, our male cat, came and joined us for a few minutes. He has been rather leery of Piper. She has done nothing to upset him, in fact she’s been the soul of animal diplomacy, avoiding eye contact and showing studious disinterest by lying down or scratching herself when he is in the room. It’s working. He is slowly getting bolder about approaching her.

We have another week before we must formally adopt Piper or return her. I think it’s working out. But we’ll be going to evening classes.

Winter Wheat

The first Winter Wheat Literary Festival was held in Portage la Prairie on Saturday. It was conceived and put together by my author friend Leia Getty and Portage librarian Lori Mackadenski, who tapped local playwright Chris Kitchen to act as moderator. The winter weather was bitterly cold, but we still got some guests. Not just random attendees who wandered in to see what the noise was, or to grab free snacks or put in for a door prize; we had budding writers with keen questions. We were asked where we get our character names, what we do about writer’s block and how we go about building a story.


Scott B. Henderson       Timothy Gwyn       Leia Getty       R.J. Hore


We talked about the choice between planning a story and seat-of-the-pants writing. Many authors plan a beginning and an end, and frame the key scenes in between. Pantsers generally write from the beginning to the end and let the characters and situations lead them from one scene to the next. Both of these methods have adherents. Ron Hore is a full-blooded pantser. For his Houstrap Chronicles, in which he melds detective noir with fantasy, he starts with a title and goes from there.

I feel that am am neither of those kinds of writer. When I started Avians, I certainly didn’t have a plan, because I didn’t even know I was writing a novel. I wrote an action scene with a girl, a glider and an airship. I enjoyed it so much I wanted to write more, so I spent my falling-asleep time contemplating worlds where those things could work together. I wrote more scenes, and gradually started looking for ways to link them in a cause and effect kind of way. This developed into a plot, and only then did I start work on where to begin and how to end. For a while I assumed I was a pantser who was learning to embrace planning, but it turns out there is a name for what I did. It’s called quilting, because you take the pretty scraps of story and sew them together into a pattern. On the plus side, you get to write the exciting parts first, so you don’t have to slog through the middle. The downside for me was that it took a long time to work out how and where the story should begin.

Chris, our moderator, asked how we name our characters. Leia admitted to a fascination with Gaelic names and mystique, and they permeate her Tower of Obsidian, but she concedes she is sometimes urged to cheat on the spelling to make them easier to pronounce. I like to take names from different backgrounds and meld them into monikers like Kayla Singh and Rukia Antonov.

Ron and I did short readings, and I was pleased to get some questions that showed interest. Because my book release is still eight months away, I was the only participant without a book or a poster to display, but people did take a handful of business cards. I have often worried that because my main character is fourteen, sixteen-year-olds might not want to “read down,” making the YA market a tough one to crack. So I was reassured when a woman of eighteen years said she wanted to read it.

After a snack break, Scott lit up the projector and ran through the process of illustrating a graphic novel. From author notes, he works up thumbnail sketches, then pencil versions, then ink, then finals. The coolest take-away lesson for me was that there were different ways to progress from panel to panel. It was all visual, so in contrast to doing re-writes, it was really easy to see the different ways a story could unfold.

I have just two regrets. Not all of our guest speakers were able to make it, so the plan to have a balanced three men and three women didn’t work out, but  although we lost some valuable input, I think we did okay. And I meant to take my copies of books by Ron, Scott and Leia to get them autographed, but I forgot them at home.

What made Winter Wheat fun for me was the audience engagement, both during and after the panels. I think the small scale of the event made personal conversations easier.

One other highlight: when I arrived more than an hour early and made my way to the library’s main desk, I said I was there for Winter Wheat. The librarian asked, “Are you the author?”

I’m pretty sure I’m not the author. But it felt great to say, “I’m an author.”



Giving Back

Before I finished my first novel, I would have been intimidated by something like Calgary’s colossal When Words Collide. I started by attending a tiny local event: Word on the Water was a Kenora literary festival that ran for two or three years, and it put me in touch with editors and published authors for the first time. I got my first blue-pencil there, and took one of my first workshops. I met Robert Sawyer there, and a host of Winnipeg and Thunder Bay authors, and Samantha Beiko, who became my freelance editor.

So I have a soft spot for little conventions that make an effort to reach out to writers on their home turf.

Winter Wheat is a new literary festival being held in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba on Saturday, December 10th at the public library. I’ll be joining a number of friends there, and we’ll have panels on Story Genesis, Editing and Graphic Novels, and we’ll do some readings, too.

I wasn’t kidding when I said I’d be joining friends; I just received the draft version of the schedule, and I know almost all of the presenters. Leia Getty is the home-town organizer; we first met at the C4 LitFest, an intimate Winnipeg event that spun off from Central Canada Comic-Con. Same goes for her old friend R.J. Hore. I have books by both of them on my shelf. I think I first met Holly Geely at KeyCon, a larger Winnipeg convention where we sat in the same audiences a lot. Lindsay Kitson is a fellow aviator and SF author- I’m in her critique group now. Scott B. Henderson goes all the way back to Word on the Water, where I bought a copy of 7 Generations.

I get to sit on the Editing panel because I’ve worked with Freelance, Small Press and Magazine editors. Just to be on the safe side, I dug out my notes from the Working With an Editor workshop that Dr. Robert Runté gave at When Words Collide this summer. He’s Senior Editor at Five Rivers Publishing, and my editor for Avians. My entire notes on the two-hour talk consist of one notebook page of scrawled keywords. I’m more of a listener than a note-taker. So: winging it.

I’m also on the Story Genesis panel. Basically, this will be about developing ideas into stories, I think. I plan to talk about harnessing your imagination and combining ideas, mumble about building the right point of view character and world for the story, and then stare at the ceiling and make stuff up.

I’ll be doing a reading from Avians. Which will feel weird, because I’m hard at work on the sequel Bandits now.

I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be fun. Me dispensing wisdom… who’da thunk?




Book cover art

The journey towards developing a book cover is going to be an adventure. A couple of years ago, when I was considering self-publishing, I got as far as contacting a cover artist. We did a first instalment, then I stopped asking for further work because I was pitching Avians to small presses.

For anyone not familiar with this side of publishing, self-published authors pay for their own cover design, and have creative control over it: the artist, the design, the budget, everything. If you sign with a press, even a small one, they take over all that.

Let’s ponder that for a moment. When you sign a publishing contract, you cede control of the cover design. Editor Robert Runté gently pointed out to me that the art director’s job is not to please the author, it’s to make people pick up the book. Preferably the right kind of people: prospective readers in the target market.

So when the Lorina Stephens, the publisher, asked me what kind of art I’d like for Avians, I was glad, but cautious. “If it was up to me”, I said, “I’d jam a girl, a glider and a honking great airship on the cover.” A picture of some main things from the text, in other words.

This kind of cover is good in several ways. Firstly, it shows the potential reader what they’re getting. If they don’t want a book about girls and gliders, they should move on. Secondly, it may spur  enough curiosity to get someone to pick the book up and turn it over to look at the blurb on the back cover. Thirdly, it’s an opportunity to show some stuff that the reader may want help visualizing. What does a solar-powered airship look like?

In the case of Avians, this is no small request. A lot of book covers are based on photographs, but there’s not a lot of stock photography for ringed planets or futuristic airships. Basically, I’m asking for a full-on illustration from scratch.

Five Rivers seems to be taking my remarks at face value: they have introduced me to Ann Crowe, an illustrator who does both line-art and computer graphics. I am delighted. I first conceived Avians as a graphic novel—long story, but my writing skills are more developed than my illustrative ones— and the cover may yet have something of that style. Ann and I seem to have a similar vision. When I mentioned that it would be nice if the airship could have an organic, shark-like shape, rather than the ribbed cylindrical form of historic airships, she replied that she was already fascinated by a whale-like airship she found when looking for reference images.

There’s one other truth about cover art. The artists have work to do, they don’t have time to read the book. If you’re lucky, they’ll look over some key excerpts. So when Ann asked if she could have a copy of the manuscript, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or do fist-pumps. She says she wants to take a break after her finishing her current project, and reading the book would provide that, while also helping her get prepared to do a cover that really suits it.

I believe my baby is in good hands.