One of the great things about this self-publishing game is the control it gives you over your covers. This is also, of course, one of the scarier things about it.
Back when I was publishing traditionally with St. Martin’s Minotaur, they were very nice about asking for my input on the cover. It quickly became clear, however, that they really were just being polite. For instance, when I first saw the cover for the hardcover version of THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND, I let them know, I thought it was pretty cool, but (1) that’s not the car Jack Keller drives, and (2) Why is Michael Stipe of R.E.M.on the cover of my book?


My editor told me “Okay, I’ll let them know how you feel, we’ll get back to you.” About a week later, I got an e-mail with an attached JPG, asking how I felt about my changes.

It was almost exactly the same cover, just with slightly different colors.

I got the hint.

I also got some really great covers from some really talented designers on that book and the next three, so it was all good.

When I went indie, I’d heard that a good cover was vitally important if you wanted to get people’s attention. What I didn’t have was any money to pay a professional cover designer. So I tried to do it myself.

Big mistake. My first attempt for my first Kindle book, STORM SURGE, looked like just what it was: some public domain footage with some MS WORD font slapped over it by a total amateur.

ImageIt looked like utter crap,  and the early sales reflected it. Then I heard about this guy named Jeroen ten Berge, who lives in New Zealand, and who was quite reasonable as to price. He’d done some covers for J.A. Konrath and Blake Crouch that I really liked, so I got in touch. Jeroen does something unusual for cover designers: he actually insists on reading the entire book before doing the cover. That makes things a little slower, but his updated cover for STORM SURGE made it worth the wait.When I got the rights back to my back catalog, I had him do the covers for the Jack Keller books as well. He also did the covers for LAWYERS, GUNS AND MONEY and GALLOWS POLE.


When I delved into Science Fiction under the name of J.D. Nixx, I decided i wanted a new look to go with the new name. So I got ahold of my good friend David Terrenoire, who’s worked in advertising for years. He worked very closely with me in selecting the stock images (about which more anon) and was very patient as we did tweak after tweak for the covers of my military sci-fi/vampire/revenge tale, MONSTER: NIGHTRIDER’S VENGEANCE,   and my short collection of medieval fantasy/mystery stories, THE KING’S JUSTICE.

By the time  I returned to redneck noir, I’d come to really like the covers that my friend Robert Gregory Browne does for his books like the bestselling TRIAL JUNKIES. Yes, he does his own covers, but, unlike me, he knows his way around Photoshop and has more of an eye for design than I ever will. So when I asked, he gracefully agreed to do the cover for my follow-up to BREAKING COVER, which at the time was called BUCKTHORN. With his permission, I’m going to walk you through the steps in designing an indie-published cover.

First, he asked for my ideas. I really had only a few vague thoughts of what I wanted, since I was busy battling my way through the second draft: “Guy walking down lonely road, possibly with shotgun in hand, and sheriff’s star in background.” He came back with this image, which he’d found at one of the many sites like, and the like that sell “stock” photographic images for ads, covers, and the like.


It’s low res, as you can see, and has “watermarks” which the version you purchase doesn’t have. Rob told me “I could isolate this guy’s torso with the shotgun, fade his face and put him against a lonely road background. Have him foreground to one side, the road behind him and maybe the badge superimposed somehow.”  I said give it a try. This was the first go:

ImageNice, huh? The gritty feel was exactly what I was looking for. The storm clouds were a  plus, too, since a big storm that brings a clue to the protagonist is the inciting plot point. But we weren’t done yet. I wanted to get across that this was the sequel to BREAKING COVER, which has so far been my biggest selling Kindle title. Also, since it’s Tim Buckthorn’s book, and he’s a Deputy Sheriff, I wanted his star in there somewhere. I kicked other titles around with Rob and others and that’s how the book came to be called BROKEN SHIELD, which ties it to the other book. Here’s the new title, with sheriff’s star on the cover:
Hmmmm…very good, but the star just didn’t work there. I considered dropping it entirely, but before doing that, I inquired if there was any way to put a black bar, like a ribbon, across the middle of it. It’s the lawman’s version of a black armband to honor a fallen comrade, and it references another plot point. Rob, Photoshop wizard that he is, managed not only to put the band on, but to pin the badge to the man’s shirt. I still don’t know how he did that.


You’ll see that the colors have changed, and the storm clouds seem to be showing through the figure. That was going to need tweaking. But now that we had the concept and design down, it was time to buy the images. Yes, you actually have to pay for them, and some sties demand that you set up an account and buy lots of “credits” towards images at a time, which required searchng for sites that had images at the right price. Nothing is ever easy.

Meanwhile, we messed a bit with text placement:


And coloring (I liked the original yellower coloring because it fit better with the cover of the last book.):
Until we finally came up with this:
I don’t know about you, but I dig it. So much that I think I’m going to ask Rob to re-do the BREAKING COVER cover to be more like it. But don’t tell him yet. He’s sick of me enough as it is right now.

And that, my friends, is how you get covers for an indie book.
I’m working through my first readers’ note and doing some revisions on BROKEN SHIELD, but I hope to have it out by the end of the month. Hope you like it!


I’m not sure if this is how one of those blog hop things is actually supposed to work, and I hate the bit where once you’re done you’re supposed to drag five other people into it. But I got tagged, and I’m always up for questions, so…

 What is the working title of your book?

 BUCKTHORN. It’s a sequel to my Kindle bestseller BREAKING COVER. Truth be told, I’m not totally thrilled with that title. I was going to call it LAWLESS, but then that damn movie came out. The readership is invited to suggest alternatives. 

 Where did the idea come from for the WIP?

 My friend David Terrenoire, the author of BENEATH A PANAMANIAN MOON, read BREAKING COVER and observed that it was as much Deputy Tim Buckthorn’s story as it was Tony Wolf’s. Buckthorn starts off as Wolf’s antagonist, and ends up being allied with him against the enemies who’ve invaded his town. See the story of how Buckthorn developed here.

 What genre does your book come under? 

Same as before: Redneck Noir. (Actually, it’s more hardboiled than noir, but “Redneck Hardboiled” just doesn’t trip off the tongue the same way).

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh, lord. This is always a tough question, but even more so with these books because of the nature of the characters. Tony Wolf is a guy who spent years undercover, and part of the reason he was so good at it is because he looks so unremarkable. Tim Buckthorn is a quiet, serious guy who the main female character doesn’t realize is attractive until she really gets to know him. Good luck finding actors in Hollywood that fit THAT.

All that said, High Jackman was looking at BREAKING COVER at one point, but passed on it due to some of the darker aspects of the subject matter. I think he would have been a good Wolf. Timothy Olyphant might work as Buckthorn, but I may just be thinking that because he’s so great in Justified. 

The female characters are a little easier. I’d love to see Michelle Rodriguez play Gabriella Torrijos. Ellen Page would be great as FBI agent Leila Dushane, a character in the new one.

As for the other books…We need to get Viggo Mortenson to play Jack Keller before he gets too old. 

ImageI wouldn’t mind seeing Josh Brolin play Andy Cole. Christian Bale’s got the scary intensity to play Kyle Mercer. I haven’t really decided on an actor for GALLOWS POLE’s Colonel Mark Bishop, but Jonathan Banks from Breaking Bad would be great as Mr. Campbell. 

Image    What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

 Straight-arrow, by-the-book lawman Tim Buckthorn’s quest to save a kidnapped girl leads to a reunion with Tony Wolf and puts him on a collision course with a vicious Southern crime family out for vengeance. 

Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?

It’s going to be self-published.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Probably the closest  would be Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens stories.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s got a kick ass female lead who I really love. Plus, stuff blows up. 

In Praise of Pen and Paper

For years, I’ve said that if it wasn’t for computers, I probably wouldn’t be a writer. I say this because I am an abysmal typist. Back when I was in college, writing any kind of paper (or story, or script) was absolute torture for me, because I simply could not make my fat, clumsy fingers go where I wanted them to go on the typewriter keyboard. (Yes, I’m that old).

You dad-blamed kids today don’t know how good you have it. I bought Wite-Out by the case. I spread so much of it on the pages that they’d be all stiff and crackly when I actually turned the paper in. People learned to cover their ears near my room if I was working on a term paper, because I’d be turning the air blue swearing over all the typos I was making.

Then my roommate brought home one of the first Macintosh computers and let me use it. When I started using the computer’s crude (by today’s standards) word processor, it was a revelation. Misspell a word? No worries. Just backspace over it and retype. No messy white stuff, no tiny stiff brush to muck about with. Decide that the third paragraph would work better as the first? No worries. Cut, paste, and there you go. When I entered law school, the school’s computer lab made writing briefs and other papers…well, not easy, but at least tolerable.

So, for years, all my writing was done with keyboard and screen. I usually had some sort of notebook nearby, but that was for jotting down thoughts, ideas, maybe a quick outline of what was coming up in whatever project I was working on. I read that other writers, like Neil Gaiman and Tess Gerritsen, do their first drafts in longhand, and I just shook my head. How tedious, I thought. Why make all that extra work for yourself, since you’re going to have to re-type it all anyway?

Round about the time I was writing STORM SURGE, however, I began experiencing real problems getting things out of my head and onto the virtual page. It seemed like I’d spend hours and have nothing to show for it but a paragraph. It wasn’t writer’s block, exactly, but ut was the next thing to it.

I tried a lot of things: writing in different places, taking long walks, taking long showers, even changing the font to try and jolt myself out of whatever malaise I was experiencing. All of them helped, a little. But the thing that seemed to work best was getting away from the computer altogether and writing in longhand. I’d picked up one of those nifty Moleskine notebooks (after reading that Neil Gaiman swore by them), and, like most people with a cool new possession,  I wanted to use it. As I began composing in longhand, I discovered some advantages of writing that way:

1. The notebook, obviously,  isn’t connected to the Internet. This keeps those pauses to reflect and imagine what comes next from turning into 15 minute sessions of checking e-mail, then checking Twitter, and so on and so forth.

2. When I’m writing in longhand, I don’t keep looking at my word count to see if I’m making my goal for the day. This helps keep me thinking about the scene and letting it develop naturally.

3. Writing on quality paper with a nice pen just feels good. It’s a very sensual experience, much more so that the mechanical rattle and clack of fingers on the keyboard.

4. I haven’t really done a whole lot of research on this, but it seems to me that writing by hand tickles a different creative center of my brain than typing does.

5. Not having the luxury of the backspace key knocks me out of the habit of going back and rewriting a sentence or paragraph, then rewriting, then rewriting again, until it gets to the point where I’ve stopped moving forward altogether. In longhand, as the poet wrote, “the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.” If I’m not happy about something, I just go “screw it, I’ll get it in the rewrite.” Writing in longhand gives me permission to suck. Because make no mistake about it: what I write in longhand really sucks. It’s terrible. It’s clumsy, stilted, with word choices that run from the questionable to the laughable. I don’t care. I’m getting stuff on paper, and it’s easy to fix it after I’ve had a day or so to think about it and I’m ready to put it into the computer.

6.  It may seem like a paradox, but because of all of the factors above,  I actually write faster if I write a scene or a chapter twice: once in longhand, then later typing it into the computer.   When it comes time to do the re-typing, I’ve already thought of my revisions, I’ve already decided which way the scene should go (and it may be totally different from the way I wrote it the first time), so I just get on the keyboard and hammer it out. No pauses for reflection (well, not many), no temptation to turn away (well, not much).

I still haven’t gotten to the point where I’m writing entire manuscripts in longhand, a la Gaiman, Gerritsen, or Neal Stephenson, who wrote his mammoth Baroque Cycle in longhand on loose paper. Check out what THAT looks like:

Right now, as I said above, I’m doing a chapter, or sometimes a scene, at a time, putting it into the computer at the next session, then back to the notebook for the next bit.  I may get to the point where I divorce myself from the computer entirely for the first draft, but I’m not quite ready for that.  But if you’re wondering what to get me for Christmas…

So, who else writes the first draft by literally taking pen in hand? Who thinks they might like to try it?

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

Over the last couple of years, job constraints and financial strains have come together to make the family’s usual Beach Week impossible. This year, however, thanks to a couple of really stellar months of e-publishing sales (thank you,  KDP Select! ) We’re going to be able to make it. So, if all goes as planned, this time next week will find me with my toes in the sand and my Big Bag O’Books in a beachfront house at North Carolina’s beautiful Caswell Beach.

And I am ready. Boy Howdy, am I ready. I’m ready to take my watch off and spend some time either lying on the sand or bobbing aimlessly about in the water all day, chowing down on seafood every night, and generally not giving a damn about anything other than whether we need to make a run to Southport for another case of Fat Tire and another gallon jug of sunscreen.

But with the delicious anticipation of a week off comes my usual nagging dilemma: does “getting away from it all” mean getting away from writing as well? For years, I used the downtime to get some work done on the latest project. In fact, the first few chapters of my first book, THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND,  came together during a Beach Week, when I pulled together a few fragments I had floating around and combined them with an idea I’d had on the drive down. Big chunks of both GOOD DAY IN HELL and SAFE AND SOUND were written during Beach Weeks, when I hauled the laptop out on the deck (or into an unused bedroom) and hammered away at the keyboard during the hours when it was just too damn hot to be out on the sand.
But one of the things about this self-publishing gig is that all your deadlines are self-imposed. I don’t have an editor waiting impatiently, except the one in my head. I could take a week off and not fall behind.

Or can I? See, if I don’t write, I feel guilty. That editor may be only in my head, but he’s a judgmental little sucker. The idea of slacking off for a week, especially in mid-project as I am now, has him shaking his imaginary finger at me and asking if I still think I really have the dedication it takes to do this professionally. (Why no, I’m not well. Not at all. Why do you ask?)

On the other hand, maybe a week off will recharge the batteries. Maybe letting some of these ideas simmer in my unconscious will allow them to become deeper and richer.

In the end, I’ll probably end up doing what I always do…compromise and take my notebook and pen along. And I’ll write. Because, as a fellow writer once put it, I write because I can’t not do it.

How about you, fellow Thalians? Have any suggestions about what I should do? Do you take vacations at all? And when you do, do you spend any or all of the time typing or scribbling, or whatever it is you do to get the words and images out of your head and onto the page? Is it possible, or even desirable, to shut it off for a week?

HEY! HEY! LOOK AT ME! Or, When the Spear Carriers Start to Sing

My contribution to the new DEAD OF WINTER anthology features Chief Deputy Tim Buckthorn of the Gibson County, North Carolina Sheriff’s Department. Tim was a character from my novel BREAKING COVER (available here for Kindle, here for Nook, and here in paper).  One reader observed that BREAKING COVER ends up being as much about  Tim Buckthorn as it is about Tony Wolf, the supposed protagonist, and he was absolutely right.

Funny thing is, Tim started off as a bit player. He was originally just a redneck deputy who hassles Wolf (who’s been hiding out for years under another name) while Wolf’s just trying to fill up his tank and get a pack of nabs and a cold drink at a country store.

Continue reading “HEY! HEY! LOOK AT ME! Or, When the Spear Carriers Start to Sing”