Month: April 2021 (Page 1 of 2)

Self-Publishing: The Cover

This is the final cover. If you like it, why not own one? It comes with words behind it, which is a great value.

Probably the most frequently heard advice in self-publishing circles is that you need a great cover. Something that stands out from the crowd. People are, after all, visual creatures. The first thing anyone will notice is your cover. In that sense, it should be eye-catching as well as communicate tone and some sort of substance. That’s why, for ANH NGUYEN AND THE DISCORDIAN, I worked with Damonza to create the cover seen above.

As a reminder, this is the cover my wife and I created last year when I put a few chapters on Wattpad:

I mean, eh…

It’s honestly not an awful cover. It’s visually interesting and communicates a bit of the substance of the novella. However, the tone is all wrong. The title and cover design would make one think this is some sort of thriller, not a satire with elements of magical realism.

When I reached out to Damonza I had to fill out a questionnaire about my book. To even get started they needed the following:

  • Description of the book
  • Key elements of the book that might be a part of the cover. For this I wrote, “Discordianism and Buffalo, NY, are major aspects of the story. I prefer symbolism and a minimalist design and would like to avoid using models on the cover. Key elements include: Five Fingered Hand of Eris; Buffalo, NY; Hodge Podge; smoke illuminated against neon light
  • Links or examples of other covers I like. I sent three alternate covers for Haruki Murakami’s AFTER DARK, which was a big influence on my novella.
  • Blurb for the back cover.
  • Paperback trim size.
  • Final formatted page count. I didn’t have this available right away, and actually screwed it up when I did get it.
  • Paper color.
  • How I’d be printing the paperback.

This is a lot of information to know if you haven’t done this before. I wasn’t familiar with trim sizes, had no formatted page count, and hadn’t written a strong blurb. So I had to get to work before even submitting the application.

I was able to figure most of it out except for the page count. This will come back later, but I hadn’t formatted the book and since I own a copy of Scrivener, wanted to do it myself. I told this to Damonza, and the designer that was assigned to my book (Robynne) said that it wasn’t necessary for the front cover, but they would need it for the paperback cover.

Within a week she got me two covers to choose from:

I liked both, but felt the one on the right better matched the tone and content of the book. So we set about revising it. I asked to pull back the focus on Buffalo as a whole, and to narrow in on the specific locations that Anh and Amy visit in the story. Then, I asked that the red from the first cover be incorporated into the second cover somehow. I also asked to see variants on colors and fonts, as I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for. Robynne was great throughout and provided me with plenty of options to choose from while we narrowed down the look.

As you can see, we went through quite a few variations on the idea until I was able to settle on the final cover. Once we got there, then it was time to do the back cover. Again, this was an iterative process, with my mostly asking for elements to be added until we got here:

Looks great, right? As far as I was concerned, we were done. But there was a problem–I had formatted the paperback version of the book wrong and so gave Robynne the wrong page count. Which meant that the cover was the wrong size. The error I made was compiling the book as an 8×11 document instead of the 5.25×8 paperback book I wanted. When I reformatted properly, I nearly doubled the page count.

Which meant Robynne had to resize the cover. But, because the book was now well over 100 pages, it meant we could do a spine. In all, things worked out, but it was a dumb mistake that led to extra work for all of us.

I’m ecstatic about the cover. I think it works perfectly for the story, is eye-catching, and does a great job selling the story. In all, I’d highly recommend Damonza if you decide to go the same route.

Self-Publishing: The Editor

As an aspiring author, it’s difficult to know how good your work actually is. There are writer’s groups and beta readers, but you’re generally reliant on your peers (i.e., other unpublished authors or non-writers) for that, which can lead to mixed results. I knew that if I wanted ANH NGUYEN AND THE DISCORDIAN to be as good as it could be, I had to hire a professional editor.

In early April of 2019 I had submitted my query for THE INHABITORS, my first novel, to a Twitter competition called #RevPit. Essentially, #RevPit pairs aspiring authors with seasoned editors. Everything is done on a volunteer basis for the editors, which is pretty amazing to be honest. That’s a lot of time to work with someone for no real gain.

Anyway, I found out about this near the deadline and threw together a pitch for my three chosen editors. I wasn’t picked by any of them, but one, Sione Aeschliman (pronounced Ash-lemon) did send me a few paragraphs of feedback on my query. Not expecting anything, I was surprised to receive it. The feedback, as short as it was, really helped me to think about the story. I kept zir in mind for when I knew I would want to work with a professional editor.

Last year was that time. In November I reached out to Sione and asked if ze’d be willing to take me on. After reviewing my logline and the first ten pages of the manuscript to get a sense of whether or not ze would be a good fit, Sione agreed. Ze sent me a contract that outlined zir rate, what to expect from the read, and the timelines with which I could expect feedback. Once I agreed to those terms I sent off the novella.

I was nervous. I really felt like if Sione hated it, or felt like it wasn’t well written (considering ze was reading something like the fourth draft), then I’d have to at least consider whether or not to continue pursuing this dream. It’s unlikely I’d have given up completely (I don’t think that’s in my nature), but it would have given me pause.

Within a month I received Sione’s edit letter–10 pages of detailed feedback. Ze broke it out into three major sections:

  • General thoughts on the story and a list of zir favorite lines. I really appreciated this, as it did wonders for my confidence that I’m not actually a terrible writer.
  • Must-do suggestions to improve the story. Obviously, any suggestions from an editor to an author are just that–suggestions. But Sione felt strongly that these things needed to be addressed in order for the story to be as strong as possible. I agreed with zir and did my best to address those concerns.
  • Nice-to-have suggestions that Sione felt would improve aspects of the story, but weren’t as critical as the “must-do” ones.

Once I had a chance to review Sione’s feedback, we scheduled a one-hour video call for me to ask questions and seek clarifications. I sent over my list of questions in advance, broken into questions pertaining to this story and questions that I wanted answers for pertaining to my career (after all, I’ve never even met someone actively working in the publishing industry before). Sione answered all of my questions to the best of zir ability, bounced around ideas on how to fix some of the issues ze pointed out, and ended the call by getting to know me a bit.

What I found most valuable about this process was the way in which Sione identified my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Ze understood what I was trying to do and tailored zir feedback to that. In the process ze helped me to realize areas of my skillset I need to pay more attention to. For example, because I come from a screenwriting background I emphasize visual and auditory description over any of the other senses. There are five in total, did you know that? Prose benefits from a sense (pun intended) of them all.

I don’t believe Sione is taking clients at the moment, as ze is busy on zir own project: Inclusive Future Magazine. I recommend you contribute to the Kickstarter. You can also follow Sione on Twitter @writelearndream.

Why I Self Published

Buy my book. (Please.)

In 2019 I wrote a novella. It was a fun little project based that I wasn’t sure I’d do anything with. But, as I wrote and rewrote and edited and then rewrote some more, I felt like I had something pretty good. Last year I decided to play around with Wattpad, so I posted a few chapters (until I realized that I needed to rewrite some of it again and stopped).

The story was never meant to be more than ~25,000ish words. That posed a problem for me. It’s probably the most publishable thing I’ve ever written in terms of quality if not content (it’s not exactly mainstream–I was heavily inspired by Haruki Murakami’s brand of weird). But something that short as a debut would never gain traction with agents or publishers. So, already that pushed me toward self-publishing as my only real option if I wanted to get this in the hands of readers.

But I also saw it as an opportunity. For a long while I’ve wanted to be a “hybrid author,” or an author that is both self-published and traditionally published. My thinking is that I would write stand-alone novels and maybe short story collections for the traditional market, and release weird little novellas and less mainstream series as a self-published writer. So, with this novella that I’m quite proud of I decided to take the opportunity to learn how to self-publish.

It’s not hard! It’s also not super easy, and I made a few mistakes that cost me time and money. I’ll go into more depth about those in upcoming posts on working with an editor, working with a cover designer, and working on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform.

My ultimate goal is to put myself in a position where I can be a full-time writer. As I get older that gets more complicated. I mean, in just the past year I’ve added a house and a child to my life. Who knows what’s next? Author Nicholas Erik has a great resource on his site on book marketing for self-published authors. There, he describes his theory of the “Indie Trifecta of Success.” Essentially, it’s a pyramid where the base is productivity (how much content are you generating?), the middle is craft (how good is your writing?), and the tippy-top of the pyramid is marketing (how are you finding readers?).

The common wisdom is that to be a successful indie (re: self-published) author you need a huge backlist of work that is available to buy. You want someone to read your work, like it, and look to see what else of yours they can buy. For the past year and a half or so a large focus of mine has been just that. The vignettes I write every month help me to hit the bottom two tiers of the pyramid. I’m generating content I can reuse later while also practicing my craft. ANH NGUYEN AND THE DISCORDIAN is my first attempt at generating income from my writing. The key now is to up the productivity while continually improving my craft so that I can publish more in the future. At that point, I’ll have multiple products with which to market.

In short, self-publishing ANH NGUYEN AND THE DISCORDIAN is the first of many steps toward becoming a full-time writer. I’ll still pursue traditional publishing as part of my goal of being a “hybrid author,” but for now going indie gives me the most control, most ROI, and is the most fun I can have with it.

Why Is My Protagonist Vietnamese?

It’s long been a topic of discussion in literary circles: Should a straight white man (hey, that’s me!) write about other races? Is it cultural appropriation to do so?

I had to ask myself (and my wife) this question while writing ANH NGUYEN AND THE DISCORDIAN. My wife was uncomfortable with the idea until she read the most of the book, and there was a period of time when I considered trunking the manuscript out of fear that I’d fucked up.

Writing about races and experiences outside of your own is a tricky thing. It’s difficult to do and has been done poorly too many times to count. For a long time white people have been the dominant voice in our culture and, because of that, have often misrepresented or straight-up villainized other races and cultures.

Despite my own misgivings and worries, I decided to go through with writing my novella with a Vietnamese protagonist. There are a few reasons why:

  • Diversity matters. I want to see books in the world that are about people other than white guys. Does that mean I should be the one writing them? Eh… maybe, maybe not. I think it depends on how I approach it and how respectfully I execute. In Anh’s case, he is a mixed first generation American (like my own son), and I purposefully played down the “otherness” of his nationality.
  • There are themes I want to explore in my writing that can’t be done with a White protagonist: Without making Anh a race other than White I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to discuss racism as I do in the novella. His companion throughout the story, Amy, is a White woman who isn’t racist herself, but enables racism by turning a blind eye to it. If Anh was also a White person, he wouldn’t be able to point out the micro aggression and ignorance that follows minorities around.
  • I want to write about Americans. To my point above, I feel it’s okay to write about any race from the perspective that they’re American. Now, does that mean the experience of a Creole-speaking African American in Louisiana is accessible to me? No. Not at all. And I wouldn’t attempt that without a lot of research and sensitivity readers. Even then, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable. That said, there are plenty of American experiences I do understand that need not be bound by race. Those stories are accessible to me and ones that I want to tell.
  • Anh’s full name is a pun. This was important to me. Amy’s name is a pun, too.

I’m still learning about how to approach writing about people and experiences outside of my own. I’m probably not always going to get it right, if ever. But I also think it’s important to try for the reasons I described above (except the last one–that’s a one time deal).



When in doubt, fuck it. When not in doubt, get in doubt.” – Principia Discordia


Our relationship was like the smoke from her cigarette framed against neon light. It glowed and wavered and drew your attention for just the briefest moment before disappearing. Unable to be caught or contained we drifted through the night air, unpredictable.

I promised her I wouldn’t describe it like that—she did her best to disabuse me of my pretentiousness—but I can’t help it. That’s how it felt to me. That’s how it still feels to me.

Every guy, wherever he is and no matter his intentions, picks one anonymous girl from the crowd and keys on her. That might mean different things to different people; it could be that he finds her beautiful, or the way she catches his eye signals some mutual interest, or maybe he’s just drunk and horny and thinks this particular girl gives him the best chance at getting laid. It doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t immediately mean danger, it doesn’t mean anything except that society doesn’t teach boys that women aren’t objects to be stared at, and if they don’t stop they’ll grow up to be creepy men.

Despite my best intentions (or lack of intention, really, being as aware of my own creepiness as I am), Amy became the girl I keyed on. I found her shortly after my friends and I had entered, the four of us crowding around two empty stools at the bar, Jack the bridge between the furthest of us and the bartender. She was sitting at a high-top beneath a red and blue Labatt’s sign, smoking a cigarette, surrounded by people but totally alone. She saw me seeing her and winked. In hindsight, that’s what cemented my attention. I had never been winked at by a stranger. I thought that was something that only happened in movies. Perhaps it is, considering everything that happened that night.

“What kind of shots are we doing?” Pat asked, grabbing my shoulder and pulling my gaze away from the girl. Pat was big, athletic and strong, so when he grabbed you, he had your full attention. In his eyes, I was just checking out some random girl in the bar. Not silently communicating with a stranger.

“No shots,” I said. “I’m done with shots.”

“C’mon…” Jack began. It was obvious what he was going to say. It was my bachelor party. My last night as a single man. The first time we’d been together as a group in years. All the boring, clichéd excuses we used to get shitfaced. “For old times sake.” I had to give him credit, he said exactly what I thought he would say, just more concise.

“I don’t drink like that anymore. My body can’t handle it,” I said.

“That’s because you’re out of practice,” Bill chimed in while passing me a tall beer. It looked darker than I liked. Probably an IPA. I hate IPAs.

“Not to worry. You’re with three drinking experts. We’ll get you back up to speed in no time. Cheers to the groom!” Pat toasted. We lifted our beers. I took a small sip from mine (the iron taste confirmed my suspicion), Pat and Bill chugged theirs until empty, and Jack drank a quarter of his. He was designated driver. While I waited I assessed the exits. An old habit, but an important one. Being in a loud bar with so many people spiked my anxiety.

Jack got serious. “What’s up with you? Aren’t you having fun?”

I shrugged. This wasn’t my idea of fun, anymore. Getting drunk in a loud bar surrounded by strangers no longer interested me. I preferred a quiet, nostalgic night with people I cared about or, if not that, then forging new memories by exploring the nooks and crannies of the city that raised us. Of course, I couldn’t expect them to know that. Considering when I left home I wasn’t surprised we had reverted back to what things were like in our early 20s. “Nothing. Is this all we’ve got planned for tonight?” I asked, hopeful.

My three groomsmen looked at one another. “We thought we’d just bounce around town. Hit up our old haunts. Reminisce a bit before you take the next step into full-blown adulthood,” Jack said. “Keep it loose, ya know? Did you have something specific in mind?”

Of course they didn’t have anything planned. Why would they? “No,” I said. “That’s kind of your job.”

I could see by Jack’s expression that I had hurt his feelings. As my best man he was in charge of festivities. When I had called to ask him, I could tell he was taken by surprise.

We had kept in touch over the years, but we both knew the closeness we felt as teenagers had dissipated with distance and time. Part of me hadn’t wanted to ask any of them. I felt the distance between us deeply—on an elemental level—especially when I considered how long it had been since anyone had come to visit me. But I didn’t have any close friends in DC and I felt like our histories made the ceremony inevitable. I had pictured them as my best men for a long time, and without any other options I saw no reason to edit that picture.

Regardless, he had accepted the responsibility. Now, he seemed to regret it.

“Alright,” Bill said, checking his watch. “Get that beer down. I’m putting you on a strict schedule of one beer every twenty minutes. You’ve already lost five nursing that one.” I took a defiant baby-sip. Bill smiled, then swapped places with Jack to personally summon the bartender.

Jack sidled up to me. “You don’t look happy.”

“This isn’t really my scene, anymore,” I admitted. I wasn’t sure Jack could understand that drinking didn’t interest me, loud music annoyed me, and standing side-by-side with sweaty strangers grossed me out. These things were fun and interesting when I was young, single, and my body didn’t punish me so harshly for introducing it to poisons. That felt like a lifetime ago.

“Then tell me what is. It’s been while since we’ve hung out. I just thought it’d be fun to relive our glory years, ya know?”

A tight frustration rose into my throat. Been a while since we’ve hung out. I wanted to ask why that was. Why he hadn’t come to visit me in Virginia, or how he hadn’t been available the last few times I’d visited home, as infrequent as that had become. A conspiracy theory formed in my brain that Jack didn’t actually like me, anymore. Maybe he found me boring. I wouldn’t blame him, if I’m honest. I was boring, and I was bored. My life consisted of work and Laura. I didn’t mind it, the stability was nice, but I understood why that would turn someone like Jack away. And maybe this imaginary Jack in my head had a point. That comfort I had built around myself—my cocoon—also felt like a trap. To his point, reliving our glory years didn’t feel much more exciting. In our early 20s we wandered from bar to bar every weekend. By the time I had left Buffalo for DC it had gotten old. Now that we were ten years on, it still felt that way.

With all of this in my head, I smiled.

“We’ll see, right? I’m just not used to this sort of thing, anymore.”

“With a few drinks you’ll get back into it. Finish that up and we’ll find a more chill bar to hang out. Ease into it.” Jack raised his glass. I clinked mine against it and we sipped. I didn’t want to ease into it. I really felt like I didn’t want to be there, with them, at all. I missed Laura and wondered what she was doing.

I glanced back to the girl at the high-top. She caught my gaze and beckoned me with her cigarette. Being beckoned is an interesting thing. It narrows the infinite number of decisions we might make at any moment into a binary—yes or no. Go or don’t.

I had every reason to turn back to my friends, to ignore her, to continue with our night. It was my bachelor party. My wedding was only two months away. Embarking on a side journey to some strange woman could only complicate my life.

Still, without saying anything to Jack or the others, I crossed the room to her table. I felt my friends’ eyes on my back. I rationalized that they would understand my talking to a beautiful girl. Maybe even give me some sort of accolades. Bill definitely would. I wondered if I could trust them not to tell Laura about it. It’s not like I would cheat on her. This was just a bit of attention that I wasn’t accustomed to receiving.

I posted up across the high-top.

She matched my gaze without saying anything. Her cigarette smelled vaguely minty and it reminded me of the kinds my friends used to smoke when we were younger, before we lost our rebelliousness and quit. I put my hands on the sticky high-top and immediately regretted it. I tried to hide my discomfort by removing them in a single motion, but it was written on my face, anyway.

“I didn’t know there were any places left in Buffalo that allow smoking,” I said.

“There aren’t,” she replied, taking a drag. “But they don’t know that I know that, and no one’s asked me to stop.” Smoke drifted from her nose, floating up into the blue glow of the neon beer sign above her. Like her, it was transfixing. The dim, neon bar lighting obscured most of her features, but I could tell that she was the type of girl who would give my imagination fits. Her hair was short and framed her features. Her face wasn’t perfectly symmetrical; she had a high forehead and her nose was a bit crooked, like it had been broken when she was young. Her smile was like an open door to a dark room, inviting and mysterious. Maybe it was the freckles that got me. Each constellation on her skin was a myth that I desperately wanted to learn.

“You’re not worried about getting kicked out?”

She shook her head. “What I’m looking for isn’t here, anyway.”

“No? What are you looking for?”

She tilted her head, the right corner of her mouth curving upward like fabric under pull of a needle. “Do you find me interesting?” she asked.

It felt like a trick question. “I find you attractive,” I answered honestly to my immediate regret. If Laura found out I’d said something like that to another woman she’d disembowel me with her fingernails. It was one of the many reasons I loved her.

Her knowing smirk became a full smile. “Oh darling, it’s so much more than that.” She leaned in closer. I did, too. “What’s your life like?” she asked.

It was a direct question, but I didn’t understand what she was looking for. “Sorry?”

“What’s your life like? What do you do day-to-day?”

I shrugged. “I go to work. Come home and have dinner. Go for a run. Go to sleep. Why?”

She shook her head, like she was disappointed with my answer. “Doesn’t sound very interesting.”

“I never said it was.” I felt offended, like she had made some judgment based on twenty words about my life.

“You don’t want more?”

Something inside me tightened with a sensed danger and still I stood there answering this strange woman’s questions. “We all want more. But there’s nothing wrong with appreciating what you already have.”

“Sure,” she said, taking another drag. “But what’s the point if you’re not happy? Let me rephrase—the only point is to be happy.”

It wasn’t a question, but I answered her like it was. “I am happy.”

“Ok,” she said. “Then there’s no reason for you to join me on what I promise will be a capital ‘A’ adventure.”

If she had used any other word I like to think I’d have been able to walk away. If she had stopped at ‘me’ instead of ‘adventure’ I could have turned around, a new story in my pocket to entertain my friends about some weird woman I met. But the way the word came off her tongue—capital “A” adventure—pulled me into the night with promises of something I desperately needed.

“What’s the plan for this capital ‘A’ adventure?” I asked.

She considered me with narrowed eyes. I wondered if I had already said something wrong. Somehow disqualified myself.

“I’m going to five more places. You’re welcome to join me for all of them, one of them, or somewhere in-between,” she said.

“Where?” I asked. “To do what?”

“Not here and to tell you what we’re doing would ruin the fun,” she said. “But if you’re afraid you can go back to your friends over there and continue looking bored and irritated.”

She was observant. And I was too easily read. “I’m not afraid. I just…” I looked back toward my friends and a new irritation swept over me. With them was more of the same things I had grown out of, with people I somehow knew too well and not well enough. This woman was something different. Probably not better, maybe much worse, but different nonetheless.

Her cigarette was nearly to the filter. She dropped it on the floor and smashed the embers underfoot as she stood. She gathered a large book bag that was sitting on the floor, needing some effort to sling it around her shoulders. There were multiple patches and stickers from pop punk bands. “Pleasure meeting you,” she said. I felt the sting of an opportunity walking away.

“I’ll get my friends,” I said, turning away from her, hoping that they might be able to offer me protection. I clearly wasn’t able to protect myself.

She grabbed for my arm. “No,” she said. “The more people there are the slower we’ll be. I just need you.”

It frightened me to think that I couldn’t enlist my friends’ help, but I liked the way she said she needed me. I liked it enough that her aggressiveness only made me consider the fact that she might be pulling me away to rob or murder me for a half second before it slipped from my consciousness.

She leaned in close. “In fact, we’ve already been too conspicuous. We should leave now.”

She disappeared into the crowd. I glanced back at Jack, Pat, and Bill. They watched me, bemused. My eyes caught Jack’s. He tilted his head a bit to ask what I thought I was doing. I knew the smart thing would be to go back to them, get through the night, and then go home to Virginia. Home to Laura.

Instead, I shrugged an apology and hurried after the strange girl, barely able to keep her in my sight through the crushing herd of drunks. When I finally caught up to her, she was waiting near the kitchen door. “Exit’s up front,” I said.

“They’ll be expecting that,” she said. “We’re going through here.” A waitress exited from the swinging doors carrying a tray of deep-fried food. The strange girl grabbed my hand and pulled me through the doorway. Without looking back, she led me through the exit and into what would become the weirdest night of my life.

« Older posts

© 2021 Craig Gusmann

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑