Ode to an Arum Lily


THE GOOD CEMETERY GUIDE with its brand new cover. The tale of Anthony Loxton’s coming to life remains immortal and unchanged…

There I was at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, vacillating as I always do between a
feeling of morose despondency (why is it that I never feel less like a writer than when I’m surrounded by the books of other writers?) and a feeling of nerdy joy at the pure bookishness of it all.

It’s one of those places where I can lose myself in the fact of books, relish the pure physicality of their many charms, as I used to do as a child when my father would bring a big cardboard box home with remaindered books and comics.


The Good Cemetery Guide, original print book cover, published by Juta SA, Double Storey fiction imprint

At FLF there are only new books – unless you wander off to the excellent second-hand bookshop in town – but I can handle that.

The FLF has another useful charm – besides the author panel sessions which are usually highly entertaining and instructional. It’s a place where one meets people one hasn’t physically seen for a while. It’s a place where book aficionados are brought together by a common interest and so they are amenable to meeting for a cup of coffee or maybe lunch, and many a long-delayed meeting has been known to happen there. Or one can just chat to other reader/writers who have come out to enjoy the tepid sunshine that usually accompanies the annual fest.

On this particular day three people told me on three separate occasions how much they had enjoyed The Good Cemetery Guide. One said it was on her top 10 favourite books ever. They all mentioned the cover. I was, as always, astonished by their enthusiasm,  not only for the story which has touched people beyond what I ever expected, but for the cover. The original cover, which I acknowledged was beautifully designed but found gloomy and did not believe was representative of the story within, has garnered glowing praise from some of The Good Cemetery Guide‘s most loyal fans.

It’s one of those lessons that an author keeps on learning; the story has its own life once it’s out there in the world, and that extends to how a publisher sees it, and to how its loyal readers view the final physical print book product, including the cover artwork. A well-beloved novel like The Good Cemetery Guide may very well be fondly associated with its cover forever in the reader’s mind. I suspect that those readers might not approve of the new cover which has been a great relief to me; they might find it a little too quirky, not their cover, not the deeply thoughtful one that evokes certain private feelings.

And in a way I understand. Searching through my bookshelves for ’10 books I’d save if my house was on fire’ reminded me of how fond I am not only of particular books but of  particular covers. They have the aspect of solid, trustworthy friends.

When I want to replace a favourite book  that’s found another home, or if I’m buying my own copy of a much-handled older edition library book,  I set out to find the same remembered cover.

So I’ve now included that first, original cover of The Good Cemetery Guide for the Anthony Loxton fans out there who keep reminding me that I’m writing for them.

Every book has a history – the arum lily cover is part of the history of The Good Cemetery Guide!


P.S. There’s a back story to the story – isn’t there always? The first cover design put forward showed an aubergine hearse custom-fitted red spotlights on its front bonnet and the clever graphic of part of a guitar superimposed over the outline of a coffin. It had the effect of  a pink skeleton casually deposited on the pavement. I thought it was perfectly suited to the quirky eccentricity of Anthony Loxton, third generation funeral director and accoustic guitar muso, but my publisher preferred the arum lily version.




A new cover for The Good Cemetery Guide

This latest e-book cover version arrived quietly,  over time… As small good things do. 

eCover-GoodCemetery-22Nov2016version2a_FINALWhat can I say? I suffer from book cover OCD. It explains everything. The long hours, the diversions, the steep learning curve as I hunted the right image and then the right cover design down…

Evocative cover art attracts me as a kingfisher might spot the glinting scales of a fish about to surface from far off.

Gazing and appreciating is a long way off coming up with a good cover for your own story.

Lesson 1 Learnt: Setting out to find the ultimate cover yourself is a time and energy draining exercise. I experimented with and discarded so many covers and so much good advice – it’s certainly not fashionably minimalistic with a punchy simplicity. Something felt right about this one.

When I first saw the Zebra stripes girl I had a feeling of deja vu, as if Lily, the unintentional cause of a small town funeral director’s life taking an unexpected turn, had somehow stepped out of fiction into life. There she sat, dreaming and remembering and contemplating the future in her quirky outfit, inhabiting an artwork done by a faraway artist who had not read my novel. My nocturnal visitation – the haunting impression of a striking big-boned redhead hovering, trembling with nervousness, waiting near the stage for Anthony Loxton to finish his guitar gig in a dimly lit music bar – plucked from the ether. The balloon was a bonus.

Lesson 2 Learnt: Be persistent and have faith in your own visual acuity. The font I really liked for the title turned out to be problematic – the letters weren’t sharp enough making it look hand drawn and unclear. Eventually after we’d both searched through hundreds and hundreds of fonts my cover designer came up with the existing font, which had the chalk writing look but was still legible even in thumbnail size. It wasn’t a popular font on any of the “best e-book covers” websites I checked out but nothing else looked right so I went with it.

Lesson 3 Learnt: Here’s the biggie – the truth is that just because you love a certain picture doesn’t mean it will easily transform into a book cover. The position of the daydreaming woman had to be adjusted to the right for the title to fit, and the colour hues had to be tweaked with variations so that it was lightened but the white text still stood out, and then more shifting and more colour hue adjustment went on so that the all-important balloon (as per the storyline) didn’t disappear into a lightened background. Using your own mind can be time-consuming and costly. It’s definitely a good idea to get your cover designer’s input on the matter before purchasing the artwork.


Aluta Continua!


The latest... "Quirky, delicious" cover!

“Quirky, delicious, finely wrought literary fiction I highly recommend for fans of Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler and Audrey Niffenegger.” I can’t believe Joni Rodgers, of New York Times multiple bestsellers fame said something so nice about The Good Cemetery Guide!
She had lots of nice things to say… but one big negative. Joni thought the cover was ‘butt ugly’ (Oh dear!).  Aluta Continua!
A "Quirky, delicious" novel...

The latest… “Quirky, delicious” cover!

So a new version of The Good Cemetery Guide cover replaces the previous version. Actually, it’s not so much ‘new’ as revamped so that the thumbnail works better (title and author’s name clearer) and a new background colour with a more romantic feel to it. So, hopefully enough changes to identify it as romance-suspense or literary fiction. I realise more and more how important it is to find your audience… and that’s where strong genre branding helps.
Lesson 1 Learnt: Do as much as you can yourself. The chances are good you’ll prefer it to what other people will do for your book. And at least you can only blame yourself!
Lesson 2 Learnt: It’s no good blaming the cover designer; you have to know what you want. I’ve gone back to the original cover design with the hearse which I still like. It just didn’t work so good for a thumbnail. I hope it’s better now, but after several quite different cover designer experiences, I realise with hindsight that cover design, like most things, is not a straight line between two points but rather a journey over hills and vales on a zig-zag path…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 


Pretty Hearses


I promised myself no regrets or rancour – just to move on and learn from my cover adventures. What I didn’t quite get starting out is that choosing a new cover is a bit like most things in life. Perfection is rare and it usually comes at a price.

“The Good Cemetery Guide” – e-Book cover designer added special font to improve thumbnail legibility

The e-Book cover design for The Good Cemetery Guide, was severely constrained by budgetary considerations. The best piece of advice I can offer with hindsight is to take a more measured approach to the selection of the cover designer. I couldn’t afford the professional cover designer I wanted so I swung over to the other extreme and went for the first cover designer recommended on a fellow writer’s blog, figuring the cover looked professional and the service was cheap. There are all kinds of caveats to this impetuous approach. 1) Does the cover designer have (any) e-Book cover experience?

“All The Pretty Hearses” – vivid and original

2) Have you checked the e-Book covers they have done and do they make your heart miss a beat? 3) Do the e-Book covers work as thumbnails? In other words is the title and your author’s name clearly legible, as well as the background image? If not, move on to another cover designer. 4) Have you checked the e-Book distributor you want to use (as well as others you don’t plan to use) for a list of recommended cover designers? The cover designers on these lists are usually VERY experienced at doing e-Book covers (what you are looking for, remember?) which means they work quickly and effectively to your brief and hence offer their services at a reasonable rate.

“Heaven in a Hearse” – sexy and attractive

5) Do you have a clear brief/idea of what you want? Make no mistake, if you don’t it’s probably going to be a long protracted process. 6) Is there a particular image/photo you want on the cover? For example, in the case of The Good Cemetery Guide I’d had the idea of a hearse for ages. If so, do your research beforehand, get the necessary permission to use it (in my case involved negotiations), and make sure you have the picture ready to go. The alternative is that the cover designer sources the picture and you take the knock of their higher fees, the fee for usage of the source image, and the additional time impact on your cover design project. 7) Can’t make up your mind as to which cover direction to go?  Know any book clubs you can approach? Why not do a mini survey amongst readers to see what they think? Don’t expect one cover to stand out as the clear winner.

“Inherent Vice” – Pynchon found the Cadillac photo

In my case it was almost a tie between three different covers. In the end I went with a favourite, the hearse cover, (that put me in good company with other pretty hearses as you can see from these examples) but we eventually used another design layout and concept because the hearse photo owner didn’t want the beautiful Cadillac hearse to look scratched or as if it suffered from a fungal infestation … Understandable. 8) Are you going to self-publish a Print on Demand (POD) version some day? Prepare the back cover as well in this case because that way you’ll have it ready and looking exactly like your e-Book cover. 9) And you thought that figuring out the formatting requirements for your e-Book was tough? Wait until you try to figure out the cover requirements. E-Book distributor instructions are frequently confusing and not detailed enough for authors who aren’t familiar with graphics packages. Enrol yourself on community forums and don’t be shy. But remember, if you’ve appointed an e-Book experienced cover designer familiar with YOUR distributor (Amazon Kindle & Smashwords in my case) then they prepare the covers for you with exactly the right pixel dimensions etc. 10) What image design software do you use? I have Corel Paint Shop Pro. My designer had Adobe Photoshop. Guess what? Source files created on the one piece of software can’t necessarily be edited by the other. Quite a revelation to the average uninitiated control freak writer. 11) Have you given any thought to what files you want at the end of the project, how many cover designs are included, how many changes/modifications are allowed in the standard fee, and whether all designs belong to you, or only the one you eventually select?  A simple written agreement can be very useful to clarify expectations up front. Remember, cheap is as cheap does…

“The View from a Hearse” – pinked-up version

E-BOOK COVER DESIGNER! Yes, I am yelling, because this will save you lots of time,money and heart-ache. Trust me on this one.

LESSON 2: If the thumbnail doesn’t work, the e-Book cover doesn’t work.

LESSON 3: Accept that it won’t be perfect this time round (if it isn’t) and aim to improve it in the future. There’s no shelf life on an e-Book! You can always improve it later.


RESEARCH: ONE BOOK MANY COVERS The World According to Garp Audiobook

The WOW Factor


I have a bit of an obsession I have to admit to – call it Covers OCD.

Cover scan of a Wow comic nº 38.

In the days when I read every Famous Five book that Enid Blyton ever wrote I never thought about covers consciously. But looking fondly at the old friends I kept I notice now they all have a colourful cover; a certain look that tells me what’s awaiting me; never-ending adventure stories where nothing too bad is going to happen. Not much later Classic and Superhero comics started arrived in boxes, rescued by my father from the paper mill’s waste-paper depot where they were destined to be pulped into bagasse. Maybe that’s where it started; the first awareness of dramatic cover design.

Anyway, to cut a long story short. I strongly disliked the first published cover of my first novel The Good Cemetery Guide, changed from a quirky/arty (in my view) pink and red hearse artwork to a funereal white lily jacket which proved to be oddly popular with many readers.  Now I have the opportunity to do exactly what I want and while it’s liberating it’s harder than I thought. So I’ve started a Covers topic which I’ll add to as time goes on with useful links and information gleaned.

17 March 2012: Stumbled upon an interesting article on Createspace Community about the importance of genre when selecting a cover. Seems obvious, no? But it isn’t, as I’ve discovered. People have all kinds of subjective reasons for why they like or dislike covers (myself included). In the end it has to be about book sales. Which cover will attract the attention of online readers so word-of-mouth and good reviews will exponentially attract other online readers?

That’s what finally helped me decide on the new cover for the new e-book and POD version of The Good Cemetery Guide. I decided to listen to the experts. Thoughtful insightful people in the book business took the time to choose one cover above all others using terms like ‘genre-appropriate’. It wasn’t the cover that got the most votes in my little market research exercise; sometimes the minority view prevails, especially if it’s based on more experience and knowledge about what drives book sales.

Ad astra per aspera

My mother believes in reading your stars.

That’s one excuse I have for checking my horoscope every day. The other is the scuffed-fullsizeoutput_1e5ayellow paperback of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs that sits on the bookshelf next to my dictionaries, harking back to a lovelorn student. My preoccupations are just different these days. Today’s Your Stars by Jonathan Cainer predicts:

The grand trine has picked you up by the scruff of your neck and is whipping you away from trouble. Never mind how or why. Just be glad.’

Boy, am I relieved things are looking up. I’m glad, believe me, really, I am. Once I’ve stopped wondering who the hell the grand trine is. I never claimed to be very au fait with matters astrological. When I look it up the following is presented: The strength in the pattern of the Grand Trine is when the individual uses the Grand Trine to their maximum advantage and sets their goals accordingly, thereby reaching their goals with incredible success. http://www.drstandley.com/astrologycharts_grandtrine.shtml#Fire

Could it possibly be referring to the hearse cover saga for The Good Cemetery Guide e-book? Read about that here sometime soon. Or is that I’ve finally accepted there’s no overnight spell to turn me into a Catherine Ryan Howard clone with sparkling wit and buoyant personality? That’s what she’s been saying all along and I finally get it. Lots of blogs use pictures from stock photo sites. And clearly ‘Consuelo, Chocolated’ won’t do. Everybody will think it’s a chocolate foodie site of some sort. And yes, I could have said ‘Writer, ballerina, straight-haired’ in my tagline. Once upon a time, feeling fat and frizzy-haired, I indulged in the harmless day-dream of being the next Dame Margot Fonteyn, but that was so I’d get to dance with the sublime Rudolph Nureyev.

So what if I’m not the most original blogger ever to hit the airwaves? I’m not the only writer who is using someone else’s visual images to market my stories. But that’s okay I’ve finally decided. So long as I acknowledge the artist. All respect to JH Lynch. And so long as the words are mine.


CATHERINE RYAN HOWARD: Oh for the love of fudge

So. Catherine Ryan Howard is my guru. My guru says ‘Oh for the love of fudge.’ Isn’t that retro and cool? Never had a guru before. I have become slavishly devoted to everything she says because she is going to teach me how to be more than ‘just a writer’. The problem is I don’t have good ideas like hers. I’m going crazy trying to find a good blog name never mind do all the rest.

The best I can come up with is Consuelo, Chocolated. It is clear plagiarism of Catherine, Caffeinated and not as smart or as humorous. Chocolated also reminds me of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which is not good. This means I’m the most unoriginal person on the planet. Why can I dream up  story after story but I can’t come up with a name for a Writer’s blog that is glittering with the smarts, never mind a bright tagline that is part of the whole cohesive trip… How do you compete with ‘Writer, Astronaut, Skinny’? I ask myself. ‘Writer, Ballerina, Straight hair’, is the best I can do. But it sounds lame because I’m copying Catherine.

I’ve been on first name terms with my guru for a while. Copying is not good. The problem is this whole marketing yourself thing is a bit like writing an unbelievable story about myself and that’s where it comes undone; the non-fiction of my existence doesn’t excite me. I like to make it all up; none of it must ever have existed before.

Catherine says all one has to is have a cohesive concept and stick to it – brand yourself in other words. So she does pink the whole hog, and normally this could be girlish and a bit mundane – but she has this very cool picture of a retro pink tea-cup (much prettier than a coffee mug) and super-retro pink typewriter and it’s practically irresistable. Right now a cohesive concept is eluding me. What is my unique angle? What do I have to share that anybody else might want to know about? Oh for the love of fudge…!

The adventures of a book peddler

Somewhere along the way I’ve become a book peddler. It seemed an infinitely preferable course of action to watching my novel THE GOOD CEMETERY GUIDE languish in a publisher’s warehouse.

Being one of those people who suffer from excess optimism, otherwise termed ridiculous enthusiasm, I ignored the advice of all the sensible caring people in my life who told me marketing my own book was a bad idea and not to even think about doinga website around the novel, not even in my wildest dreams; that it would distract me, delay me, detour me; that I was a writer not a salesperson, a novelist not a web-designer, and in case I really didn’t get it, no writer ever made money out of a website and I should be concentrating on my second book.

Not strictly true of course, some writers have done very nicely through their websites, but for the sake of argument they (those of good intent) were absolutely right. My 2008 New Year’s resolution to earn a living as a writer has been postponed once again to the following year. They did however forget to mention what seems most pertinent; that it would require endless painstaking hours of hard work. Doing a website is worse than writing a book; it’s a consumptive black hole.

Any serious enterprise requires time.  Writers never have enough time because we’re leading double lives; we live and work in parallel so just making the space to be aware of taking a breath (listen to/read Eckhart Tolle’s A NEW EARTH!) is hard.

The good news is it’s been a gas. Rollicking fun-on-the-road growing-up-to-be-a-real-writer stuff. The truth is the adventures are as much a real life affair
as being in cyberspace.

I’ve vanquished shyness and expanded horizons by getting out to small independent bookshops in the city environs and in outlying country towns, and talked about the book and website to some of the countless readers circles, writers groups and book clubs that keep the book industry in South Africa humming. Along the way I’ve sold books.

The readers of the kind of books I read and write finally have a face. I’ve written pages of content for the website in a different style to anything I’ve published before. I’ve experienced enormous crafting satisfaction from turning an idea that wouldn’t let go of me into a cyber space called www.goodcemeteryguide.com that dwells lightly on the interplay of life, love and death. Always with the hope that someday we’ll have those important conversations at the dinner table!

And here I am baring my soul on book.co.za! I’ve stormed the bastions of technology with a website; now with Ben’s help I’m inside the fortress. I wish I could say I just threw a few words onto the ‘page’ and it was a breeze. Truth is I dithered over it because spontaneous unedited expression is scary.

Measured words are a writer’s weapons in the war against mortality. I look forward to further real life marketing forays and cyber adventures but the time has come to put self-marketing on a slow burner and return in spirit to the really tough stuff that terrifies the living daylights out of me as much as it drives me nearly insane with pleasure.

The gods of the universe and I had a serious chat the other day. I’d been out in the car and material for future books was being thrown at me thick and fast (as tends to happen when I drive around); I felt pummeled and exhausted by the end of the trip.

“I haven’t even finished my second book!” I said grumpily to no-one in particular. A voice in my head said quite clearly, ‘Well, get on with it!’ And so I shall.

Source: First published in its original format as ‘Adventures in Cyberspace’ on Sunday Times Books Live