Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Art of the Blurb

Or Why I Shouldn’t Try to Get a Job on Madison Ave.

You write a novel, and before you can publish it, you have to produce a blurb to go on the back. Seems simple enough, but for whatever reason, this is not my strength. I can dash off 450 pages without blinking an eye, but reduce those pages to three paragraphs? Ack. Shoot me now.

I didn’t realize my limitations at first. I felt quite proud of myself, in fact, having compressed the essentials of my soon-to-be-released Russian novel to a few telling paragraphs. I won’t burden you with the original version: it’s not important to the post. At the time, I was working on my cover (a story for next week’s post). When I thought it close to ready, I showed it to my friend Diana Holquist, who has not only published six novels and one nonfiction book of her own but used to work in advertising. She looked it over and said, “There’s too much information.”

Too much information? I’d left out 441.5 of the 442 pages. How could there be too much information?

Fortunately, Diana also included a couple of samples. And with a few tweaks from me, one of those samples gave rise to the following description, which will go to press in early September as the back cover of The Golden Lynx:


Russia, 1534. Elite clans battle for control of the toddler who will become their first tsar, Ivan the Terrible. Amid the chaos and upheaval, a masked man mysteriously appears night after night to aid the desperate people.

Or is he a man?

Sixteen-year-old Nasan Kolychev is trapped in a loveless marriage. To escape her misery, she dons boys’ clothes and slips away under cover of night to help those in need. She never intends to do more than assist a few souls and give her life purpose. But before long, Nasan finds herself caught up in events that will decide the future of Russia.

And so, a girl who has become the greatest hero of her time must decide whether to save a baby destined to become the greatest villain of his.

You’d think I’d learned my lesson. But if I had, I wouldn’t need to write this post. I could just send Diana a thank you card and move on. The Golden Lynx became just Act I of the story.

In Act II, my spouse—since I sometimes use the screen name Marguerite, we’ll call him Percy—decides to help me sell my first book, The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel. He’s very good at talking up my stuff, much better than I am, so I happily turn over my back cover copy and a list of reviews and links and let him go at it.

After a while, he wanders by and says, “Your reviews make the book sound interesting. I’d even like to read it.” A real concession, that, since historical romance is not his thing. I’m feeling good.

Then he hits me with the follow-up. “But the blurb—there’s too much information. If I picked that up in an airport bookstore, I’d have to drop it and run for the plane before I decided whether to plunk down my cash.”

Gulp. We’ve been married a long time, so even though my tongue tingles with the desire to say something rude, I don't, because I suspect he’s right. Besides, it’s not like I’ve never heard this feedback before. I pull out a shorter version I’ve written for the library reading I’m giving in a month and show him that. Problem solved. Right?

“Nope,” he says. “Still too much information.” He makes some suggestions for improvement.

By now, I’m feeling more than a little cranky. I think evil thoughts about who in this family writes fiction and who doesn’t. About where I got the idea of writing the blurb that way in the first place. About how other people liked it.

But I don’t speak them. The point of writing is to connect with readers, not to shove my fingers in my ears and guard my right to be obscure. Suppose the other people weren’t telling the truth, because they didn’t want to deal with me being cranky? Plus Percy was the one who came up with that line about the “greatest hero has to save the greatest villain” line for Lynx. Maybe I should trust his instincts.

I grit my teeth, go back to my computer, take his suggestions seriously, and try again. And again, and a few more times. By the time I finish draft six, Percy is hiding in his office, wishing I would go away and not ask him for any more opinions. He looks like he’s remembering that poison research I did a few weeks back and wondering if it’s safe to eat dinner.

After many trials, and much input from the spouse, I came up with this new version. Does it make you want to read the book? (Hint: You may not want to tell me it has too much information.)

Have you ever wanted to rewrite your favorite novel—fix the heroine’s mistakes, win the hero’s heart?
Nina Pennington does. It makes her day when she lands the plum role as the heroine of The Scarlet Pimpernel in a class assignment based on a computer game. She knows she can win—until she realizes her one chance for success requires an alliance with her least-favorite fellow grad student, cast as the Scarlet Pimpernel himself.
The game challenges Nina in ways she never anticipated, and that least-favorite fellow grad student starts looking better by the minute. But then, she has always had a soft spot for the swashbuckling Scarlet Pimpernel.

Now Nina has to choose: win the game, or take a chance on love?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Photo Albums of the World

A Whirlwind Tour

In “The Nation’s Photo Album” I discussed the royalty-free, mostly attribution-only collection of images and sounds maintained by the U.S. Library of Congress’s Digital Collections. As impressive as that resource is, it represents only a small part of the digital richness accessible through your web browser. So here I offer a brief overview, by category, of other places you can find usable art.

Note that not all these sources are quite as “public domain” as the Library of Congress. Some require permission and may extract a usage fee for anything other than noncommercial use. According to the helpful FAQs maintained by the Metropolitan Museum and the Smithsonian Institutions, posting to a blog, a social network, or a website is considered noncommercial so long as you do not accept advertising, charge a fee, or use the site as a store. Placing an image on the cover of a book you plan to sell may be considered commercial use, depending on the number of copies printed and whether you aim for a mass or an academic audience. Also at some institutions, not every image can be used. Where I know of restrictions, I list them, but you do have to check in each case.

That said, here are some more suggestions in a far from exhaustive list.

First off, I’d like to mention the photography version of Wikipedia: Fotopedia. Fotopedia photographs are uploaded by users under some version of the Creative Commons license.

Fotopedia has a number of free apps available for iDevices, available through the App Store on your device. These free collections offer a great way to search and surf for images, but you still need to use a browser to check the copyright information on photographs you want to use or repurpose. If you go to the main site at the link above and keep clicking the right arrow until you get to the search box, you can enter a search term for a part of the world, a geographic feature, or a category of people and see tens to thousands of gorgeous photographs. Click at bottom right of an image page, where it says “Some Rights Reserved,” to find out the exact terms of use for that shot. Some photographers permit commercial use with attribution; others don’t. Even those that don’t may choose to waive the restriction if you write to the address given on the image copyright page.

But to quote the Fotopedia Basics page: “The encyclopedia is not meant to stay on Fotopedia's website. You can embed widgets on your blog and website, share links with friends on Facebook and Twitter, and get them to vote on photos. Spread the photos and spread the word to the world! Just remember photographers take great photos and deserve to be recognized for their work.”

Two other good sites of free, public domain photographs and clip art are Microsoft’s Clip Art Gallery and MorgueFile. These have no restrictions that I know of, but do check around for a “terms of use” that may require attribution or impose limitations.

And, of course, the WANA Commons group on Flickr is growing every day: it must be close to 4,000 images by now. For more information, see the link in my previous post.

Then we come to museums, most of which will allow you to download their art free for noncommercial use, so long as you attribute the source. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York both give clear directions on what you can and cannot do (look for a terms of use or a FAQ—the Smithsonian’s is at, and their digital collections and online exhibitions offer rich and varied artwork from all over the world. The Smithsonian also manages the Freer and Sackler galleries of Asian art (the source of my first image). The Smithsonian marks images that have no known copyright restrictions, but for commercial use I recommend you e-mail the address given in the terms of use. Or buy one of the museum’s DVD collections for about $20. The Met Store also posts works of art to its Pinterest board, which you can follow.  The Art Museum of Chicago has a Pinterest board, too.

 Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Freer Gallery of Asian Art, F1952.2
Folio from the Gulshan (Rose Garden) Album;
Mongol chieftain with attendants resting in the countryside,

ca. 1600, Mughal dynasty, Jahangir (r.1605-27)

It’s also worth searching for major art museums elsewhere in the United States and Canada. Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia have wonderful art museums, as do many other cities.

And don’t stop with U.S. museums. The Louvre in Paris, the  State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Kremlin Museums in Moscow, the British Museum in London, and others are increasingly moving online. Terms vary, but again the usual standard seems to be that you can download any image and use it for noncommercial purposes so long as you attribute the source as determined by the museum, although objects owned by third parties may carry restrictions.

For example, the British Museum permits noncommercial and educational, academic, scholarly, or private use, including posting to a website; images may be cropped but not otherwise altered and must be attributed © Trustees of the British Museum, with additional information listed by the museum for a particular image. For commercial use, the museum maintains a British Museum Images service, but its prices are high (£100—about $150—for the one photograph I checked). The museum also maintains a free image service, which e-mails registered users certain files considered to be copyright-free. You find images by searching the General Catalogue and checking the Images only box. For more information or to request a fee waiver, e-mail

Another source is public libraries, including the online services that may be available through your own local library (call your librarian for details. As with museums, most libraries tend to have a more restrictive copyright policy than the Library of Congress, but they are still public-service institutions, so they are usually willing to grant permission, if necessary, perhaps in return for a fee.

In addition to the Library of Congress, one great source is the New York Public Library, which holds about 800,000 images in its Digital Gallery. You are welcome to download any of them, although the library notes that some images may still be subject to privacy and copyright restrictions, in which case you need to read the library’s “Terms and Conditions” before posting them on a website, social network, or blog.

Again, other countries maintain their own versions of the Library of Congress. To give just example, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France has a large collection of images, including almost every print produced in France from the 17th century onward. I had a harder time figuring out what the BNF considered fair use, though. European Union copyright law tends to be stricter than U.S., so I would definitely verify the rules before posting an image. Fees for use in print (€25–50) are about half that of the British Museum.

University libraries often have digital collections, although they may limit access to members of the university community. But again, it’s worth searching for big libraries in other U.S. and Canadian cities: you may be surprised how much you can access with minimal effort.

As Linda Adams mentioned in a comment to my previous post, many U.S. government agencies (and, quite likely, the government agencies of other countries) take their mission as public servants seriously and allow people to use their images free of charge. An obvious agency to check is NASA. You can download pictures directly from the site, including the image of the day and various shots from the Hubble Telescope and the current Mars rover; watch a slideshow of recent images; see thumbnails; and connect from there to the archives. If you need to check copyright information, try

My second image, “X-Rays from a Young Supernova Remnant,” is courtesy of NASA.

I had planned to end this post by noting that, despite having—and using—all these sources for art, my own blog contains no photographs other than the covers that Goodreads throws up from among the books I’ve reviewed. But while researching the Blogger help files to find out how to add an RSS feed, I discovered that “Cannot upload due to an internal error” is Blogger speak for “You haven’t enabled Picasa Web Albums, dummy, so where am I supposed to put this picture?” Tech talk triumphs once again!

Note that the Blogger help files, even the one that listed reasons why a person might have trouble uploading images, did not explain what the “internal error” meant. I had to deduce it, based on the explanation of how to upload pictures, which mentioned in passing that Blogger stores the files in the user’s Picasa Web Album. Since I did not have one, and knew that Google manages Picasa, I managed to sign into my Google Apps dashboard and find the appropriate “service”—i.e., Picasa. Then trial and error confirmed that I had discovered the missing link.

Do I sense another post?

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Nation's Photo Album

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on covers and the fine art of finding legal images to repurpose for them. So what do you do, if you need pictures for a blog, website, or cover and want to avoid getting sued? Shutterstock or the equivalent makes sense for a cover, but most indie writers can’t afford a subscription just to keep pictures flowing onto their blog.

In addition to some emerging solutions, like the new WANA Commons (check out Kristen Lamb’s blog for that one) and the invaluable Wikimedia Commons, a little digging reveals quite a few institutions that are happy to let you use their images in return for no more than an acknowledgment.

I’ll address most of these in a second post. Today I want to concentrate on the site I always check first, the absolute top of the tree for low-budget publishers: the U.S. Library of Congress, which allows you to use any image, even in print, so long as you credit the library (“Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress” will do). The nation’s attic, as it is called, has over 1 million digital images from all over the world classified into seventy or so collections of pictures and photographs, as well as a separate collection of audio files (called the National Jukebox). You can find the list of print and photograph collections at

The Library of Congress has collections of, among other things:
  • African American photographs assembled for the Paris Exposition of 1900, as well as the separate Gladstone Collection of African American photographs;
  • Ansel Adams’ photographs of the World War II internment camp at Manzanar;
  • architecture, design, and engineering drawings;
  • baseball cards;
  • the Brumfield Collection (1,100 photographs of classic Russian architecture);
  • caricatures and cartoons (American and British);
  • Civil War (U.S.) prints;
  • photographs from the Crimean War, 1853–56;
  • daguerrotypes;
  • the full  archive of the Detroit Publishing Company;
  • drawings of many varieties;
  • fine prints, including a set of Japanese prints, pre-1915;
  • the Korab Collection (800 photographs of Eero Saarinen’s buildings);
  • the Lomax Collection (rural United States);
  • the Matson Collection (Middle East, 1878–1946);
  • panoramic photographs;
  • photographs from the Ottoman Empire, 1880–1893, showing its modernization;
  • posters associated with the performing arts, graphic arts, Spanish Civil War, World War I, and more;
  • Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii’s original color (not colorized!) photographs of the Russian Empire, including pictures of the royal family, ca. 1915; and
  • negatives showing the Wright brothers flying their plane.
Specific collections may have restrictions, but you can find out what they are when you access an image. In most cases, “fair use” rules apply. The library gives specific information on whom to contact and under what circumstances: just click on the “Obtaining Copies” tab.

You can find additional images at and  The Folklife Collection includes documents, songs, and interviews; the Exhibits have documents as well as pictures. The Library of Congress also hosts international collections, the American History and Culture collection (maps, documents), the Performing Arts Collection, THOMAS (the searchable database of bills, Congressional Record, etc.), the Historic Newspapers Collection, the digitized first-person stories in the Veterans History Collection, and more. For those, go to and click on Digital Collections.

New collections are added frequently. And everything is available to the public. These are your tax dollars at work. So feel free to use them, because they are a precious resource, and their continued existence, in effect, depends on people like us.

Talking about Writing

A guest interview I did with Nicole Boone. You can find out more about Nicole and see e-interviews she has conducted with other authors at

Tell us a bit about yourself.
C. P. Lesley is a pen name. In real life, I am a historian specializing in early modern Europe—that is, the 15th through 18th centuries—especially Russia, which is the setting for my next book. People in my field will know who I am when I publish that second book; the pen name is just to separate my fiction from my academic work.

What inspired you to be an author?
I never intended to write fiction, but for as long as I can remember, I have told myself stories before going to sleep. One day, about 15 years ago, I had a scene in such a story exactly where I wanted it, so I wrote it down. Then I wrote the scenes before and after it, and before I knew it I had a quarter of a novel. A very bad novel, I discovered much later, but by then I was hooked on the idea of writing fiction. It took a lot of feedback, much reading of craft books, and the concerted efforts of my writers group to get me to produce anything worth reading, but I’m glad I stuck with it. I’ve learned an enormous amount along the way about what makes a novel work, and that’s despite having been a bookworm all my life.

Is there a particular message in your book/books that you want readers to grasp?
I write for fun, and I hope readers will enjoy my work without worrying about hidden messages. That said, my books tend to focus on the values of cooperation and compromise. And because I’m a historian, I use them to make history accessible in ways that it often isn’t in a classroom while keeping the facts as accurate as I can. But I don’t preach. It drives me nuts when a novel stops the plot cold to give me five pages on political or economic conditions during the period in question, so I deliver the history in digestible chunks and only as it affects my protagonists. If people love the story, I’m happy.

How did you come up with the title for your book/books?
Titles are tough. Mine either come to me right away—I have titles for all five volumes in my Russian series, even though I have only the sketchiest idea of the plots beyond book 2, which I’m beginning now—or they hide in the woodwork and refuse to come out, no matter how many treats I offer. The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, the book I published in June, was one of the hide-in-the-woodwork kind. I went through about five titles before settling on this one, and I’m still not completely happy with it. I picked it because I thought it would work well in search engines: people who love the original Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (1905) are the natural audience for my book. But I forgot that Orczy wrote about twenty Pimpernel novels, many of them with Scarlet Pimpernel in the title, and there are quite a few titles beginning with “The Not Exactly” as well. So it turned out not to be such a good choice. Although it did get the book onto someone’s website devoted to all things “exactly,” which came as a pleasant surprise.

Where do you get ideas from?
The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel was another book that began as a before-sleep story. I had re-read the original, which I loved when I was a teenager, and couldn’t get the central conflict out of my head. I kept trying to solve the problem, and when I had worked it over enough, I wrote it down. Of course, the job of a novelist is to create conflict, not to resolve it, so the result was that fifty pages into the book I ran out of story and had to develop a new one of my own. That book went through revision after revision, but in the end I produced a version I liked.

The Russian books I approach in a much more focused way. Russian history is so fascinating that I have no trouble finding ideas, and in the 16th century there were none of those modern inventions that make a writer’s life so difficult. No cell phones or Internet, no DNA research, no fingerprints—no police, for that matter. Characters can do all kinds of stuff they can’t hope to get away with these days.

How do you fight writers block?
I get writers block only when I try to force a character, especially a protagonist, to do something that serves the plot but is wrong for that character. Then the dialogue dries up and I can’t see what’s happening. So I’ve learned to stop and figure out what I’m doing that’s not right for the story, and that’s usually enough to kick me back into gear.

Also, I write to relax; it’s not my day job, so if I did stop for a while, no one would care but me. That takes a lot of the pressure off.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
I am a “plot first” writer. I can come up with plot twists at the drop of a proverbial hat. But developing rounded characters is hard. Fortunately, my writers group includes a “character first” writer, as well as another plot specialist, so she pokes and prods at my chapters until I produce credible people.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I have so many favorite authors that I can’t pick just one. As I learn more about craft, I find that my approach to reading changes. When I find someone who can really bring a setting and characters to life and keep them moving in ways that make me not want to put the book down, that’s my favorite author of the moment.

Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
I would love to travel more, but no. The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel required only that I read a lot of Orczy novels and watch the various movie/television versions. I spent hours studying Anthony Andrews, who did a fantastic job as the Scarlet Pimpernel in an 1982 BBC production. I pretended that was work, but of course it was pure pleasure.

The Golden Lynx, the first of my Russian novels, draws on years of research in the field and past trips to Moscow. It’s my way of conveying ideas that I can’t prove in an academic setting. I’d love to visit Kasimov, Kazan, and the steppe someday, though. Those are all settings in the Lynx series, called Legends of the Five Directions. Failing that, there’s Google Earth, which gets better every day. Still, there’s nothing quite like having memories of a place when you are trying to recreate it for a reader.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?
This will sound odd, but the hardest part was to get past thinking like a historian. Novelists get inside people’s heads. That’s the charm of novels: they let us see something real life never permits—how other people think, as distinct from what they want us to know. Historians don’t get inside people’s heads, because we work from documents, and even if you have access to someone’s letters or diaries, you see only what they wanted you to see when they wrote. So to get to the point where I could reproduce a character’s experience from the inside took years, literally.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I learned tons. Mostly about writing, as I mentioned before. But also a lot of details about revolutionary France (in Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel) and Tatar culture (in Golden Lynx). I love the research. It’s almost as much fun as the writing.

Do you have any advice for other writers?
Revise, revise, revise. And read everything you can about the craft of writing. Don’t send your book out as soon as you finish it. You’ll think it’s ready, but it’s not. Instead, find other fiction writers with compatible personalities and, if you are lucky, different strengths and have them read the book and comment. Then revise some more.

It’s not new advice, but it is worth heeding. The truth is that writing takes time to master, even if you’re an avid reader. As J. K. Rowling put in in her Harvard commencement address, “You have to kill a lot of trees before you write anything good.” And these days, with e-readers and iPads, you don’t even have to kill trees. But you do have to practice.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Let's Talk Titles

Many authors have trouble with titles. I have several writer friends who go through the entire creation/revision process referring to their book only by the name of the central character. Which is fine, in traditional publishing, since titles remain malleable almost until the moment when the book goes to production. It doesn’t make sense to get too attached to a title when the editor or marketing department will make the final decision. But if you are self-publishing or, like me, working with an indie press/writers’ cooperative, you the writer have sole and ultimate responsibility for the title of your book.

Here I have generally been lucky. My first (unpublished and unpublishable) novel had a title before I had a rough draft. As the book developed and changed from Star Trek™ fan fiction into my own science fiction, the title changed, but it always had a title that reflected the central idea of the book and made me happy. Similarly, my second novel, which eventually gave rise to The Golden Lynx, went through a couple of titles as it morphed from historical mystery to adventure romance. It started life as Day of St. Helena, which I then decided was too obscure. I replaced it with Sins of the Father (too clichéd), before overhauling it into its present form. And I already have titles for the four Lynx sequels, although only the second (The Winged Horse) and the third (The Swan Princess) have anything approaching a plot.

The one big exception to this rule is The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, which I published this summer. You’d think, given that I was riffing off someone else’s work (the original Scarlet Pimpernel is in the public domain, so I’m not violating Baroness Orczy’s copyright—plus the story deviates from hers early on), finding a title would be easy. Instead, I went through so many, I can’t remember them all. Sir Percy Rides Again, The Pimpernel Plan, Moonlight and Mechlin Lace, The Scarlet Pimpernel Returns—I could go on, but I’ll spare you. For a while, my spouse pushed It’s Tough Out There for a Pimpernel. Funny, if perhaps not striking quite the right tone. By then, I’d have loved to have a marketing director sweep in and solve the problem for me.

In the end, I bowed to the logic of search engines. Obviously, the target audience for my modernized Scarlet Pimpernel is people who love the original—or who would love the original if they knew of its existence. After umpteen revisions, you don’t have to have read the original to understand my version, but in marketing terms, to quote one of my reviewers in a different context, “it helps.” So I wanted “scarlet pimpernel” in the title to make it easier for people looking for the original to see it. Hence the decision to violate the writing rule that declares adverbs the spawn of the devil and embrace The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel.

It seemed like the perfect solution. Only after I had the book online and began searching for it did I recognize that the plan had a major flaw. I had forgotten, you see, that Baroness Orczy wrote about twenty Pimpernel books, which in the last 107 years have yielded dozens of editions in several different media. So if you search for “scarlet pimpernel” on, what you see is pages and pages of Orczy novels. My book, if it appears at all, lies buried somewhere near the end. Even I don’t have the patience to go through the entire list. And “Not Exactly” turns to be not exactly rare, either. I should have done more research. But since it would just sow confusion to change the title now, I will have to find another way to market the book.

It’s tough out there for a Pimpernel....

What about you? How do you decide what to title your work?