Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: Jody A. Lee

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.

Midnight Crop Inspection

A Short Excerpt from Chapter One of A Bone to Pick

By Jan S. Gephardt

“What is that dark thing in Bonita’s quinoa patch?” XK9 Shady Jacob-Belle dialed her vocalizer low, flattened her ears, and growled. Unease slithered in her gut. She drew back from the balcony’s railing.

A portrait of XK9 Rex, a large black dog.
XK9 Rex Dieter-Nell, © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

Her mate Rex had been gazing toward the starry nighttime sky-windows with a dreamy look on his furry black face. Now he crouched beside her in the shadows, tense and focused. He stared toward the quinoa. “I am not sure.” Like her, he’d lowered his volume as far as it would go.

Together they peered through gaps in the trailing curtain of sweet potato vines that hung down from the rooftop garden on the level above them. The leafy vine tendrils provided a handy impromptu blind.

Through their brain link, Shady felt her partner Pam rouse from an exhausted sleep. Physically, Pam was at home, seven kilometers away in the Central Plaza District of Orangeboro. But their brain link gave her the ability to be aware of what Shady was doing. Shady? Pam’s mental voice came across drowsy and disoriented. You okay?

For now. Stand by, Shady answered. Whatever lurked a hundred meters away in their neighbor’s field, it was roughly human-sized. Shady’s hackles rose with a prickle of foreboding. All she could see in the darkness was a lumpy shadow among the meter-high quinoa spikes. Veils of mist drifted on thermals up the clifflike terraces from the river far below. Some were too thick to see through. Air currents carried scents from the quinoa patch away, not toward her.

Mist over Chinese rice terraces.
Misty rice terraces in China. Rice terraces inspired the landforms of Rana Station. (Jack Zhou/Tripadvisor).

She stifled an urge to bark. Better stay silent until they knew more. It might be nothing. But it also might be a Transmondian agent, here to spy on Rex’s Corona Tower home. Spy, or do something worse.

Shall I come out there to you? Pam seemed wider awake now.

Be ready to call it in but stay put for the moment. There may be a simple fix.

Shady activated the neural Heads-Up Display of her Cybernetically-Assisted Perception equipment, then shifted to the thermal-imaging setting. A man’s hot, white form blazed into view among the dark, much-cooler stalks. He’d positioned himself about a meter from Rim Eight Road. “Damn. Definitely a man out there.”

At her side, Rex’s deep growl rumbled like thunder. “Not. On. My. Watch.” He rose from his crouch, then whirled toward his bedroom door. No light flicked on when he entered. He must’ve used the com in his CAP to disable the motion sensor.

A portrait of XK9 Shady, a large black sable dog.
XK9 Shady Jacob-Belle, © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

She followed, of one accord with him. On a different night they might have been less alarmed, although no night was good for prowlers. But tonight their world had changed, very much against the Transmondian government’s wishes. The humans of Orangeboro and Rana Habitat Space Station had publicly declared to the Universe that XK9s were not mere forensic tools, but sapient beings.

News feeds all over Alliance Space had broadcast a presentation that Rex, Shady, and the rest of the Pack had given to demonstrate some of their capabilities. They’d designed it to show that XK9s were capable of sapient-level thought.

The government of Transmondia had tried to stop the presentation. They’d launched hot rebuttals the moment broadcasts began. Transmondian government officials, as well as the government itself, were the XK9 Project’s major backers. They’d sold XK9s to agencies all over Planet Chayko, and planned expansions far beyond Rana Station. Premium dogs sold for millions of novi, a lucrative trade that would end if XK9s were declared sapient and shielded from trafficking by Alliance-wide laws.

Pam is a pretty Latina detective who wears her long dark hair in a ponytail.
Pamela Gómez,
© 2016 by Jeff Porter.

I’m calling it in, Pam said. I’m getting dressed.

Shady’s gut tightened. Her hackles prickled anew.

“Head for the garage,” Rex said. “We can swing through the orchard. Approach from the back of the property. I imagine he will be focused more toward the road, with its potential traffic. He may not expect us to come from the other direction.” Rex had lived here more than two months. He knew the layout of the two-hectare property far better than Shady, who’d only visited a couple of nights.

She and her mate moved silent as wraiths through the apartment, then six flights down. They passed rack upon rack of seedlings, bathed in blue light and fastened all the way down the leeward wall of the stairwell. The young plants’ vigorous, fecund smell hung thick in the air, laced with faint, faded scent-trace from Family members—but not from Rex’s human partner, Charlie Morgan. Charlie was currently in the hospital. The doctors had brought him out of his re-gen coma on Friday, but he still wasn’t healed.

A flat of seedlings under blue LED light.
Blue light stimulates seedling growth. (Dean Kopsell, University of Tennessee/Hort Americas).

I alerted Dispatch, Pam reported. Your backup’s on the way.

Thanks. Shady passed this on to Rex. Gratitude for Pam’s conscious presence and backup through the link filled her with a warm swell of affection. Poor Charlie had worn himself out, staying up to watch the XK9s’ presentation on the vid screen in his hospital room. He probably was deep asleep right now, unable to advise or comfort Rex.

Mist-borne odors of hours-ago supper and the big oak tree at the courtyard’s center mingled with the other smells into Corona’s unique mélange. Rex led her to the underground garage, then out on the spinward side of the tower, opposite their watcher’s location.

They leaped up the embankment by the driveway. “He is crouched in a harvest-ready field, heedless of the damage he is doing to the crop.” She hadn’t been a Ranan for long, but angry disgust soured her throat. “Only an ignorant foreigner would do that.”

Hot rage like charred coals burned in Rex’s scent factors , and deepened the menace in his growl. “Transmondian agent. Got to be. Probably thinks the crop is just tall weeds.”

Her mate was right. No Ranan would make such a mistake. A stealthy foreigner, concealed, spying on Corona, almost certainly came from the Transmondian Intelligence Service. Rex had good reason to hate the TIS, and especially Col. Jackson Wisniewski, the spymaster who’d tried to make Rex one of his assets.

A north Indian apple orchard.
Apple orchard in Himachal Pradesh (Vandana Gupta/Twitter).

Shady followed him toward a grove of fruit trees. By now she’d phased into full guard-dog-on-the-hunt mindset, ready to deal with this trespasser. They’d learned as puppies how to quietly navigate thick, wild brush. Far easier to move in silence through Corona’s well-maintained orchard, but better not get sloppy. Especially not if this guy was from Transmondian Intelligence. She kept her nose up, sorting through the night-smells. At last came a tendril of the stranger’s scent, laced with a telltale touch of gunshot residue.

GSR? Alarm radiated through the link from Pam. Is he armed?

I don’t think so, Shady replied. “Faint GSR,” she texted to her mate, not daring any sound at this point. If only she and Rex had a brain link like the one she shared with Pam!

“GSR confirmed, but maybe a day old,” Rex texted back.

Gunshot residue didn’t wash off easily, although this man had tried. It was yet more proof that he was a Transmondian, or at least a dirtsider from Planet Chayko. Almost no Ranans had either access to firearms or any need for them on their space station home. Good thing this man didn’t smell as if he had a gun tonight.

Misty vineyard rows.
Mist over vineyard rows at Flowers Vineyards & Winery (couldn’t find a photographer’s credit).

They crept closer, screened behind a trellised vineyard row on the leeward side of the tower, their footsteps muffled by clover. A quick dash across a short gap brought them onto neighboring Bonita Tower property, between two rows of leafy quinoa topped by heavy seed heads. Shady brushed carefully between the drying stalks, wary lest they crackle.

She and Rex moved upwind of the intruder, a couple of rows over. She’d already committed his personal odor profile to memory, but now she studied his scent factors. The involuntary exudations betrayed the dusty-smoky smell of fatigue. Perhaps a touch of shuttle-lag? She caught the faint pa-pum of his heartbeat, his careful, even breathing, and then his quiet yawn.

“Wait here,” Rex texted. “I’ll approach him from behind.” He disappeared around the end of a row.

Shady halted, ears up. “How close is our backup?” she texted Dispatch.

“En route,” the dispatcher replied. “ETA about five minutes.”

“Good evening, sir,” Rex said in a calm, moderate tone.

A man stands in a ripe quinoa field.
A man stands in ripe quinoa field. Granted, it’s daylight and he’s not hiding. (Toronto Star/no photographer credited).

The man gasped. Dry stalks crunched.

“I do not believe I recognize you.” Rex’s robotic vocalizer-voice wasn’t capable of much emotional nuance, but from the cadence she pictured him with ears up and tail wagging. Trying to look as non-threatening as an unexpected, enormous black wolf-dog in the night could. “May I please ask what brings you—” The pop of a trank-pistol cut him off.

Shady shouldered between the plants. “Shot fired!” she told Dispatch. “We are engaging!”

“Here, now! There is no call for that.” Rex had dodged the trank bolt. A black blur of motion beyond a last row of stalks, he darted in, snapped his teeth onto—

The man twisted, faster than humans could move. His weapon popped again.

Rex stumbled backward into the quinoa, legs wobbly, then fell over.

Sorry—I did say “short.”

A Bone to Pick, from which “Midnight Crop Inspection” is excerpted, is available for pre-order in Kindle format in both the United States and the United Kingdom, for automatic delivery on Release Day, Sept. 15, 2021. After release it will be available in many formats (including print) from many fine booksellers.

If you’d like advance peeks in the future, as well as XK9-related behind-the-scenes background and bonus material, sign up for my monthly newsletter!

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.
Jan’s new book A Bone to Pick will be widely available in a variety of formats after Release Day, September 15, 2021. Cover artwork © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

IMAGE and OTHER CREDITS:

This excerpt from Chapter One of A Bone to Pick is © 2021 by Jan S. Gephardt, and published by Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. All rights reserved.

First, many thanks to my wonderful illustrators! To Jody A. Lee, who created the cover for A Bone to Pick (© 2020). to Lucy A. Synk, who painted the portraits of Rex and Shady(© 2020). And to Jeff Porter, who brought Pam to life (© 2016). You all are a blessing!

I also deeply appreciate everyone whose photos helped me illuminate this excerpt. A thousand thank-yous to Jack Zhou, a multitalented fellow. Check out his website! So much gorgeous photography! I found his photo through Tripadvisor. I’m also grateful to Dr. Dean Kopsell and Hort Americas for the photo of broccoli microgreens seedlings under the kind of blue light Uncle Ralph employs in the Corona Tower stairwell.

What a lovely find on Twitter: Vandana Gupta’s atmospheric apple orchard conveyed the look I wanted for Corona’s orchard. I’m also inspired by the photo of the vineyard in the mist from Flowers Vineyards & Winery. Do yourself a favor and spend some time on their beautiful website! And I’m also grateful the Toronto Star provided such a brilliantly illustrative photo of a man in a ripe quinoa field (but in brighter light than what Shady had for her midnight crop inspection). Now you know how a quinoa field looks, and how tall the stalks are compared to an adult human male.

Deepest thanks to all!

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.

The story of A Bone to Pick’s Cover

By Jan S. Gephardt

It’s way too late for this to be a “reveal,” but the story of A Bone to Pick’s Cover deserves telling. Because it was not an easy—or short—journey!

Late update: I unfortunately timed this post just when Jody had retired her old website and hadn’t quite gotten her new one ready. If you’re reading this in late 2021, her links may not work.

The Artistry of Jody A. Lee

For most of my adult life it has been my secret fantasy that someday my books would have Jody A. Lee covers. She and I have a rather long history, and through it all, I’ve cherished an abiding love and admiration for both her, and her artwork. From the very beginning, long before it seemed like even the remotest possibility, I harbored a fantasy. I dreamed that one day Jody could illustrate a book I had written. It seemed like a crazy pipe dream, back then.

Jody and I met through ASFA, the Association of Science Fiction & Fantasy Artists, back in the 1980s. For quite some time in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, my husband Pascal and I acted as her agent for sending her fine art prints to science fiction conventions all over North America. I also created a couple of printed promotional brochures for her, in an early effort to help market her work directly to fantasy art lovers.

Even though those markets have changed, and changed, and changed again, We’ve been friends since then. In recent years we’d grown more distracted by family and career issues. But when I went to her and asked if she’d ever be willing to paint a cover for me, she said yes! My crazy-pipe-dream-fantasy actually came true. Twice, so far! How many people get to say that?

Left to right, some book covers by Jody A. Lee: “The Black Gryphon,” by Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon; “A Study in Sable,” “By the Sword,” and “The Hills Have Spies,” all by Mercedes Lackey.
Jody has range and vision and amazing skill. All of these cover paintings are ©Jody A. Lee (image source credits below).

A Memorable Moment in the Book

Jody reads the current draft of my book before she conceives the cover illustration. She builds it based on a memorable moment. In our first outing, for the cover for What’s Bred in the Bone we considered several scenes. Jody’s portrayal of Shiv and Rex in the Five-Ten worked best. But then came a bunch of those devilish details.

Jody doesn’t normally read a lot of science fiction, especially not “hard” sf. I’d had several readers who were old hands at sf go through the work and have little reported trouble with the descriptions. But Jody was having a devil of a time visualizing some of them. We went round and round on the helmet and background and how to portray them. What did I mean by this or that term? What did one of those things look like?

But eventually we arrived at this characteristic moment for Rex and Shiv, a man who was at that point in the story his SBI “frenemy.” And helping Jody visualize it helped me understand ways to (I hope) make the story more understandable and accessible. I like to think that others are intrigued by the idea of a sapient, talking police dog, even if they primarily read other genres. And maybe they will enjoy the stories more, thanks to my consciousness-raising from Jody.

Left to right, Rex in the Citron Flash; then Shiv and Rex in the Five-Ten.
Two highly characteristic moments from the novels. Artwork © 2020 and 2019 respectively, by Jody A. Lee.

A Fantasy Painter Tackles Futuristic Tech. Twice.

When you read A Bone to Pick you’ll almost certainly recognize “The Scene” that inspired the cover. That scene unfolded somewhat differently in the early (2019) draft Jody read, but it’s definitely still in there. Many of those who’ve read the manuscript as beta-readers or critique partners also pointed it out as a favorite moment. I was tickled by the idea that it would end up on the cover. And I think she has realized it beautifully.

But that beautiful painting didn’t happen without long, hard effort.

First problem: Jody knew she wanted to show Rex in the car. But what did a futuristic self-driving car on a space station look like? It needed to look sleek and science-fictional. The boring little auto-nav boxes that most people utilize on Rana wouldn’t “read” well on a book cover at all! That’s how the Citron Flash was born. In later drafts, it developed into something of a “character” in its own right. If you enjoy that minor subplot when you read the book, chalk up another “thank you” to Jody.

But this wasn’t the first time Jody had approached science fictional tech with initial trepidation. Remember Shiv’s helmet and his weapon on the first cover? That gun-looking thing is an EStee. It’s a dual-function service weapon used by law enforcement officers on Rana. But for a fantasy artist who specializes in painting swords, a futuristic firearm wasn’t part of the normal toolkit. For the underlying EStee design, she and I owe a debt of gratitude to Jeff Porter. He helped me with some initial character development artwork, and he reportedly enjoyed designing an EStee for me.

An early study for the Citron Flash, a detail of Shiv’s helmet and EStee from “What’s Bred in the Bone,” and Jeff Porter’s EStee prototype design.
Artwork is © 2020 and 2019 respectively by Jody A. Lee, and @2016 by Jeff Porter.

Envisioning the Inside of Rana Station

Unfortunately for Jody, that was not the most daunting science fictional aspect she’d have to tackle. The story of A Bone to Pick’s cover involves a particular, peculiar twist. Or should I say “upward curve”? The infernal perspective of the habitat wheel posed a far steeper challenge. This peculiarity of the toroidal space habitat landscape is so marked, it provided an opening for What’s Bred in the Bone, where it bothered the newly-transplanted, planet-reared Rex:

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.
Jan’s novel What’s Bred in the Bone, the first book in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy, is available right now. Cover artwork © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

“Damn it, no horizon should bend upward.

“XK9 Rex Dieter-Nell flinched away from the “scenic overlook.” He clenched his jaws on a quiet whimper, but the shudder down his back made his hackles prickle.

“His human partner, Charlie, met Rex’s eyes. I’m sorry. I know you don’t like it. His words flowed through their brain link on a wave of empathy.

“Rex lowered his head, wary of insulting his partner’s beloved home. . . . I guess we’ll see how things work out. He hazarded another look. Ugh. It was freaky-unnatural for a river to run down the wall at one end of the vista, as Wheel Two’s Sirius River did. Even worse for it to run back up the wall at the other.”

–Chapter One, “A Walk in the Park,” from What’s Bred in the Bone
Rex and Shady are silhouetted against the sky-windows of Rana Station.
Rex has since reconciled himself to the view. (background ©2020 by Jody A. Lee; Rex and Shady portrait heads ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk).

The infernal perspective of a habitat wheel

God bless Don Davis and Rick Guidice. They were the first artists to grapple with the technical complexity of painting a landscape as it would appear inside something similar to a massive bicycle wheel in space. They were an essential part of the early NASA Ames Research Center project. In the summer of 1975, they helped a think-tank of genius scientists and engineers develop detailed plans for a habitat in space based on a wheel-like structure, a basic plan first proposed by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1903.

Drawing the thing from the outside was far easier than drawing or painting images of the inside. But Davis and Guidice brought it memorably to life. You’ll notice that two of the three are cutaway views. As the middle image from 1975 demonstrates (below), it’s really challenging to get such an image to “read” clearly. Bending their brains around the crazy view cannot have been easy. But ever since then we’ve had something of a “cheat sheet” to go by.

And also a challenge for their successors. If they could do it, then it can be done.

Visualizations of the interior of a toroid space habitat: Left to right, under construction and a landscape oof the interior; and a cutaway of the interior with homes and landscaped plants.
Visions from the Ames Center in 1975: © NASA; artwork left and center by Don Davis. Artwork at right by Rick Guidice.

An Alien Landscape

Early in the story of A Bone to Pick’s cover, I sent Jody these images from 1975 (she’d already found them for herself, too, I believe). When she sent her first developmental color study, she accounted for the “bent” horizon. Other aspects of Orangeboro’s topography, though? Unfortunately, not so much.

That was my bad. As a writer, it’s easy to airily refer to “the verdant terraces of the Sirius Valley” and go on with whatever is happening in the scene. But an artist has to show it. In considerably more detail than the writer must devote to the subject. No matter how “impressionistic” the artist’s technique may be. And you’ll have noticed already that Jody has a beautiful style, but it’s not notably “impressionistic.”

So, okay, Jan. What do you mean by “the verdant terraces of the Sirius Valley”?

Rana Station is supposed to be a self-sufficient space habitat that is home to more than eight million souls. Those are eight million souls who need not only room to live and work, but who also need to eat. Self-sufficient means they need to grow it all on-Station. And that means they need to maximize their food-growing space. Don Davis gave us a rolling, but basically single-level landscape that didn’t include nearly enough growing space for what I had in mind. Rana Station needed something different. This led me to agricultural terraces and river meanders.

At left, Philippine rice terraces. At right a satellite view of a meandering river.
Rice terraces in the Philippines create crop land on a steep hillside (photo © by Allyson Tachiki), and rivers naturally meander (photo by Google via Robert Hodgin).

The Terraces of the Sirius River Valley

I needed a “horizontal space multiplier,” if I was going to feed all those hungry fictional mouths. I also needed to account for some of the natural patterns we know will develop over time, because: physics. Humans have been “making more arable land” for centuries, using agricultural terraces in naturally-steep terrain.

And even from early on, it was pretty clear that there’d be a river running through the torus. If you water the plants in gravity, where does the water go? Check the Don Davis landscape above from 1975.

Moreover, if water flows, it naturally meanders. My Rana Stationers would have to allow for that, too. I also realized that an undulating valley structure, winding in and out, rather than running arrow-straight along the insides of the torus also would be a “horizontal surface multiplier.” For an unscientific example of this, fold a paper fan. Your fan has the same surface as a flat piece of paper, but the flat paper is much longer. The folds condense the surface area.

Thus, I told Jody not only were “The verdant terraces of the Sirius Valley” built like giant stair steps. They also rippled in and out. So, is that clear enough?

Say, what???

The story of A Bone to Pick’s cover grew kind of complex at this point. The superb horticulturalists of Rana Station don’t tolerate unproductive weeds in any precious cubic centimeter of Ranan soil. But at this point Jody and I wandered off into the tall, jungle-thick, metaphorical weeds of trying to communicate with each other. No. it was not clear enough. Not at all.

Frustrated, I resorted to the same expedient Davis and Guidice had, back in 1975: I started making pictures. More accurately, I started making models. I created what I thought were interesting simulations of the perspective. But my models still didn’t communicate what Jody needed.

Left-to-right, Jody’s first color study for the cover of “A Bone to Pick,” Jan’s photo of the maquettes she’d constructed, and Jan’s cut-and-paste mashup of Jody’s Rex-in-car sketch over photos of Jan’s maquettes.
At left is Jody’s first color study. Center and right are Jan’s attempts to use 3-D paper maquettes to describe the terraces, switchbacks, and a model of Corona Tower cut-and-pasted behind the sketch of Rex in the car. No, they didn’t make sense to Jody, either. (artwork © 2020 by Jody A. Lee and Jan S. Gephardt, respectively).

Something Like Wavy Layer Cakes

It’s a good thing we had started working on this project well before I needed it, or the story of A Bone to Pick’s cover might have turned tragic at this point. It took me a long time to produce a drawing that more clearly communicated what I needed to convey to Jody (see below left). It’s not great art, and since my studio was mostly in boxes while we put in a new floor, I wasn’t able to develop any kind of perspective for the buildings beyond “eyeballing” the angles. It was crude. It was stiff. Frankly, it was an embarrassing drawing.

But once I sent it, we were finally on ever-more-synchronized wavelengths. I had begun to fear we’d never get there. That she’d tell me to take my stupid job and shove it. But Jody is a pro, and she stuck to it. And when it comes to visualizing something that is purely hypothetical and may never exist in real life, I guess you can’t beat a fantasy artist.

I was startled and distracted by how much my terraced hills looked like layer cakes, but by now Jody had a firm vision and a much less meandering route to the finish line. She took things masterfully from there. We exchanged a series of sketches, and she got to work on the final painting.

Left to right, Jan’s first, stiff sketch in a sketchbook; Jody’s response, based on it; and Jan’s refinement on the idea, with more terraces, in response.
A “conversation” between artists: evolving views of the “verdant terraces of the Sirius Valley.” Artwork © 2020 by Jan S. Gephardt, Jody A. Lee, and Jan S. Gephardt,, respectively.

The story of A Bone to Pick’s Cover

So that’s the story of A Bone to Pick’s cover. I hope that this collaboration has not only produced a cover to make you smile (and buy my book???). I hope that the whole process of working through questions of “exactly what do you mean by that?” and “what does that look like?” has made A Bone to Pick a better book.

You can find out for yourself it it did, on (or after) the release date, September 15, 2021. If you’re interested, you can pre-order a Kindle version in either the USA or the UK. After release, it’ll be available from a variety of booksellers in a variety of formats.

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.
Release day is September 15, 2021! Pre-orders available. Cover artwork is © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

IMAGE AND OTHER CREDITS:

The excerpt from What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jan S. Gephardt, published by Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. All rights reserved.

Of course, the vast majority of the artwork in this post is © by Jody A. Lee. The EStee sketch is © 2016 by Jeff Porter. There also are some sketches that are © 2020 by Jan S. Gephardt. And the “head shot” portraits of Rex and Shady are © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

The book covers at the beginning come from a variety of sources. That first cover, for The Black Gryphon, is courtesy of Amazon. The covers for A Study in Sable and By the Sword are courtesy of Goodreads. And the cover for The Hills Have Spies is from Penguin Random House.

Imagery and all kinds of rich information from the NASA Ames Research Center makes my life as a science fiction writer infinitely easier, and continues to yield more treasure each time I explore it. And I can’t begin to express the impact the artwork of Don Davis and Rick Guidice has had, both on my work, and on the conception of Rana Station. Seriously, guys. It’s a debt I can’t ever repay.

Farther down, the photo of the Batad Rice Terraces in Banaue, Philippines is © by Allyson Tachiki via Flickr. It offers a great example of how humans have learned to “make more land” out of very steep terrain. The satellite photo of an unidentified river meander originated from Google. But I found it on Robert Hodgin’s fascinating exploration of river meanders. Do yourself a favor and check out that web page when you have a minute. It’s pretty amazing.

The cover of the Advance Reader Copy edition of “A Bone to Pick,” by Jan S. Gephardt, shown as an ebook.

Making ARCs

By Jan S. Gephardt

I’ve been making ARCs recently.

What does that mean? It means I’ve been assembling an assortment of documents into an early version of my latest book, to create Advance Reader Copies. It’s not exactly parallel to a dress rehearsal for a stage play, but for me it’s a necessary step in the publicity rollout for my science fiction mystery novel A Bone to Pick.

I’ve been blogging a lot in this space recently, about A Bone to Pick. Those posts are another part of the rollout. As basically an Indie writer, I’m trying to build a small press publishing company, Weird Sisters Publishing, with my sister, G. S. Norwood. I may not have to face the kind of “gatekeepers” a writer encounters in traditional publishing. But plenty of other challenges attend every attempt to promote and sell each book we “weird sisters” produce and release.

G. and I decided to share part of our approach to those challenges in this blog post. We know some of our blog subscribers will be more interested in this than others. Perhaps you found G.’s post from last week more interesting. But maybe you’ll enjoy seeing me pull back the curtain on part of our process, and the role that making ARCs plays in it.

The cover of “A Bone to Pick,” by Jan S. Gephardt, as an ebook.
The release date for A Bone to Pick is September 15, 2021. (Cover art ©2020 by Jody A. Lee; 3D effect by Book Brush).

The Struggle to find Our Kind of Readers

In an earlier post I explored some of the difficulties an Indie or small press faces, when trying to get the attention of reading public. The first thing we had to understand is that “the reading public” isn’t actually our target. A small subgroup of the global population who reads books—that select group of readers who are interested in the specific kinds of stories we write—is the population we need to find.

It’s a search that never ends. This blog is part of how we search. My website and that of Weird Sisters Publishing are other essentials. Reviews, social media interactions, and targeted advertising provide other ways for us to reach out. Check us out: I have an Author Page on Facebook, and so do G and Weird Sisters. I also have a presence on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Goodreads.

I traveled to science fiction conventions for publicity as well as pleasure, until COVID put a temporary halt to that. Last fall I started building a mailing list for followers of my XK9 stories. They receive a monthly newsletter full of insider glimpses, extras, and exclusive freebies.

Join the Pack newsletter offer with FREE copy of “The Other Side of Fear” novella.
The offer still stands: Get The Other Side of Fear FREE when you sign up for my Newsletter! (all artwork ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk).

The Rollout

Those are all ongoing efforts. The rollout is different. It’s a focused push to let as many of “my kind of readers” as possible know about my new book. That includes advertising. It also includes the series of blog posts we’ve been running. Newsletter updates and excerpts. Changes to our websites.

And, importantly, it includes making ARCs. Because it has taken me so darn long to write the book, and because I’ve been planning a return to science fiction conventions that starts at FenCon, I cut my rollout shorter than would have been ideal, and set my release date for September 15, 2021.

The Kindle version of A Bone to Pick is available for presale now, in both the United States and the United Kingdom. I’ve offered a discounted price for the presale: $2.99 in the U.S. (after release it’ll go up to $4.99), and £2.12 in the UK (post-release, that’ll go up to £3.84).

I wanted, if possible, to have printed copies of the new book available at FenCon, which is scheduled for September 17-19. My proofreader is still carefully combing through the manuscript for errors. But the shortened time frame means I should have been making ARCs weeks ago, not now.

Jan at her autograph table at Capricon 40.
I go to science fiction conventions such as Capricon (where this was taken) and FenCon as part of my ongoing outreach. (Photo ©2020 by Tyrell E. Gephardt).

Making ARCs

So, okay. How hard can that be? What goes into making ARCs? Well, a finished-for-real manuscript, for one! That was the hardest and longest part.

I also have created a Directory of names, places, and acronyms in the book. That was a reader request. I’ve also included one for the first book, in current versions of What’s Bred in the Bone. Both are large, sweeping space opera mysteries, full of exo-terrestrial and multicultural names, police-style acronyms, and a rather large cast of characters. The readers were right!

Thank goodness, I’ve had the cover already created for a while now. But I needed to differentiate it from post-release “official” copies of the book, so I created an identifying element to the cover design. Yes, I could simply have overprinted “ADVANCE READERS COPY” on the cover, but I think this looks better.

What else goes into an ARC? Well, there’s all the “book stuff” you need for the real thing. A title page, with our Weird Sisters Publishing logo and URL. The page with copyright notices. Vellum, the publishing program I use, automatically creates a Table of Contents, but I needed to compose the Dedication’s wording. I added my bio for the About the Author page (with a photo), and there was other material needed for the end of the book. Did you know I also specifically designed the “Wolf Tracks” ornamental break we use in all of the XK9 books? That needed to go in there, too.

Design elements, author photo and a directory all went into the ARC compilation.
Here are some of the elements that went into making ARCs for A Bone to Pick. (Credits below).

Why do I need ARCs?

Advance Reader Copies go out ahead of the release date to my all-important Street Team—and the sooner, the better! Street Team members are people who have signed up to not only be on my mailing list and get my newsletter. They also receive free Advance Reader Copies before release date. In return, they write honest reviews of the book, and post them to Amazon on Release Day. ARCs should go out to current Street Team members today!

If you are interested in being on my Street Team, sign up for my newsletter! You’ll receive more information in the follow-up emails. It’s not too late to get an A Bone to Pick ARC of your own!

Other ARCs go to reviewers, bloggers on review sites, and other authors willing to consider giving me a cover quote. I’m in the process of contacting them now. ARCs are just a part of what goes into the “entrepreneurial” side of being an independent writer. But for me, making ARCs is the step that makes it “real.”

Yes, the book is finished at last! It says what I want, and the Brain Trust has reassured me it’s ready. And yes, others will read it soon! For me, that’s at least as big a thrill as writing THE END.

The cover of the Advance Reader Copy edition of “A Bone to Pick,” by Jan S. Gephardt, shown as an ebook.
Making ARCs is an important part of the rollout process before the release of A Bone to Pick. (Cover art ©2020 by Jody A. Lee; 3D effect by Book Brush).

IMAGE CREDITS

The cover painting for A Bone to Pick is ©2020 by Jody A. Lee. The artwork on my Newsletter offer, including the cover of The Other Side of Fear, is ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk. The photo of me at Capricon 40 with all the S.W.A.G. on my autograph table is ©2020 by Tyrell E. Gephardt. In the montage of “ARC ingredients,” the photo of me is ©2017 by Colette Waters Photography. The Weird Sisters Logo and the “Wolf Tracks” ornamental break were designed by me, and are ©2019 by Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. The photo of the Directory’s first page is a screen capture of the preview in Vellum. The 3-D effects on both the regular edition and ARC images are by Book Brush. If you wish to reblog or repost any of these images, please do so with an attribution and a link back to this post. Thank you!

A Bone to Pick by Jan S. Gephardt

Almost There

By Jan S. Gephardt

To quote Red Leader Garven Dreis, we’re almost there!

In this case, I mean we’re almost to the point where A Bone to Pick is available and ready to read. Almost. We’re close enough that I can at last announce a presale offer on Amazon, in both the US and the UK.

I’m also almost to the point where Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) are ready to go out as review copies. I’ll send them to my Street Team and other selected people (learn more about that process—and how to get one—when you subscribe to my newsletter).

The official release date is September 15, 2021. Take advantage of the presale offer to get it first thing on Release Day, and also to get it at an almost-half-off discount!

"A Bone to Pick.”
Pre-order A Bone to Pick as a Kindle ebook for a significant discount. Cover art © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

What is A Bone to Pick? It’s the way-too-long-in-coming second novel in my XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. What’s it about? Here’s a book description.

XK9 Rex is a dog who knows too much.

Now his past is gunning for him.

Rex and his Packmates were bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools. So smart they’re considered uplifted sapient beings on Rana Habitat Space Station. Rex may be the Leader of the Pack on Rana, but his past is still gunning for him.

Before Rex came to Rana Station, he ran afoul of Transmondian spymaster Col. Jackson Wisniewski. He deliberately flunked out of the espionage program and threatened Wisniewski’s life. Now Wisniewski wants Rex dead. Transmondian agents watch and wait for any opportunity to strike.

Rex takes pains to evade his old enemy. His human partner, Charlie, faces a different struggle. He works to recover from catastrophic injuries – and comes face-to-face with a once-in-a-lifetime love he thought he’d lost forever.

Can Rex and Charlie confront their pasts and secure their futures? Or will events force them to sacrifice everything?

“The Other Side of Fear,” “What’s Bred in the Bone,” and “A Bone to Pick.”
Cover art for The Other Side of Fear, a prequel novella about the XK9s, is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk. Covers for What’s Bred in the Bone and A Bone to Pick are © 2019 and © 2020 respectively, by Jody A. Lee.

Almost There

I’m hopeful that I have made A Bone to Pick complete enough within itself that it will stand alone. Early returns from my Brain Trust look good.

I had a lot of fun writing this book. I enjoyed interweaving a romantic subplot (and making things tough for the would-be lovers). The Izgubil investigation continues, of course, with new twists and revelations. The XK9s face enemies both old and new – and the complexities that come with taking on the responsibilities of sapient beings begin to baffle and bemuse them.

I’ve tried to make this book as entertaining as possible. Some readers may be pleased that I reached gender-parity with the point-of-view (POV) characters in this book. In What’s Bred in the Bone there were three: Rex, Charlie, and Shady. Kinda heavy on the guys. We get to ride along in the head of a new, fourth POV this time, with Hildie’s point of view. I hope you’ll agree that she adds a new dimension.

I could say more, but I’ve hinted at enough spoilers already.

I’ve poured a lot of energy and time into this project, as readers of last week’s post may have discerned. I’m excited for you to read it. But it’s the second book in a trilogy. A reader undoubtedly will get more out of A Bone to Pick, if they read the first book, What’s Bred in the Bone, first. If you haven’t yet read it, here’s your chance!

“What’s Bred in the Bone.”
Published in a number of formats, What’s Bred in the Bone, the first book in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy, is available from a variety of booksellers. Cover art is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

XK9 Rex is a dog who thinks too much

. . . and it could get him killed.

Rex and his Packmates were bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools, both smart and verbal. But there’s smart . . . and then there’s sapient. In the star systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, that’s a legal distinction with potentially deadly consequences for XK9 Rex and his Pack.

Sold to a police department on an in-system space station, Rex trails a pair of murder suspects. But his rookie mistake in microgravity, plus a catastrophic spaceship explosion, sideline both Rex and his human partner, Charlie.

But Rex’s keen senses picked up a vital clue about the exploded ship. He knows he must get the humans to listen to him somehow, even if it means breaking protocol. He doesn’t realize that protocol hides an ugly truth: XK9s are more than forensic tools with cold noses and wagging tails. When Rex takes an independent hike to HQ, he blows open an international conspiracy that could destabilize the entire system . . . and place all XK9s everywhere in mortal peril.

If you haven’t read it yet, there’s no better time than the present to get your copy. But maybe you’d like to know more about the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. What’s the idea behind it? Here’s the trilogy’s description.

Can a pack of uplifted police dogs find a home among the stars?

Or will their creators hound them to extinction?

The XK9s are super-smart dogs, bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools. But do smart and verbal equal sapient? In the star systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, that’s a legal distinction with potentially deadly consequences for XK9 Rex and his Pack of canine super-sleuths.

When Rex, his Pack, and their human allies on Rana Habitat Space Station tackle a grisly mass-murder case, more than an interstellar pleasure ship blows wide open. Now the people behind the XK9 Project, and their sponsors in the system-dominating Transmondian government, are desperate. They’ll do all they can to erase the evidence of their international conspiracy, before inspectors from the powerful Alliance of the Peoples can investigate.

Will Rex and his Pack run down the perps and defend their sapience claim? Or will their enemies destroy them?

four running XK9s.
XK9s Tuxedo, Victor, Razor, and Rex are headed somewhere in a hurry! Illustration artwork © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

Almost There” is Relative

Don’t get me wrong. I’m really excited to have a finished manuscript of A Bone to Pick. It’s literally the labor of years. But it took fewer years by far than What’s Bred in the Bone. And I really, really hope that Bone of Contention will be ready even sooner than that.

So, then. When do we get Book Three? Well, I’m working on it now. I don’t have a cover yet, but I do have a title, Bone of Contention. And I have an ever-more-detailed concept.

How close am I? Well, I have an established world and characters. Also a lot of ideas, a handful of early-draft scenes, and a partial outline.

And a book description! Can’t forget the book description. It may not be the final book description. But more experienced hands than me have advised that it’s a good practice to write a book description as part of starting a novel project. That way, when inevitable conundrums arise when the author’s drafting the novel, the book description can help keep things on track.

XK9 Rex is a dog who dreams too big.

Now he may lose everything.

Rex and his Packmates were bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools. But they’re more than super-smart forensic tools with cold, wet noses and wagging tails. Their human allies on Rana Station claim the XK9s are sapient beings.

Rex and the Pack have begun to enjoy the freedom Ranans believe they deserve. But they also have work to do. They’re hot on the trail of a murderous gang that explodes spaceships in the Black Void of space—killing all the souls onboard.

Mass murder in the Black Void is a hideous crime. But in the far-flung systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, trafficking in sapient beings is the most-reviled crime of all.

Inspectors from the Alliance of the Peoples are headed to Rana, to test the XK9s’ sapience claim. The leaders of the XK9 Project that created Rex and his Pack deny wrongdoing. And the system-dominating Transmondian Government that sponsored the XK9 Project will do anything they must to protect themselves.

Even if it means destroying every XK9 in the universe.

Updates to “Almost There”

This post contains a lot more information than I usually give on “Artdog Adventures” or even “The Weird Blog,” about my projects-in-progress. Those blogs generally cover more wide-ranging topics. (These blogs have featured the same material in recent months, presented simultaneously. Both my sister and I found ourselves stretched too thin to write multiple blog posts each week and cover all the other things we needed to do.)

Why not take a look?
XK9s Petunia, Crystal, Cinnamon, Scout and Shady invite viewers to take a look at ways to get updates. Illustration artwork © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

If you like more “behind-the-scenes” information about what I’m writing and how it’s going, the place to look is my monthly newsletter. Its readers get sneak peeks, bonus materials, and free giveaways that our blog readers never see. If that interests you, please give it a try!

Here on this blog, you’ll see more about A Bone to Pick when we get closer to the September 15, 2021 release date. Meanwhile, next week I’ll return to one of my favorite blog subjects—space stations, in science fiction and real life.

IMAGE CREDITS

Admiration, honor, and thanks to my marvelous illustrators, Jody A. Lee and Lucy A. Synk. See cutlines on individual images for copyright notices. You may feel free to reblog or repost any images used in this post if you want, but please show respect: link back to this post and acknowledge the image creators and their copyrights. We appreciate it!

Screen-capture of a monitor with the signature Star-Trek-style interface from a “The Next Generation” episode.

Creating a calendar for Rana Station

Since our prehistory, humans have focused on creating a calendar, then using it to keep time. We’ve based calendars on the seasons, the sun, and the moon. We’ve scratched symbols into clay, bone or stone, dug sequences of pits, erected poles, or even dragged enormous stones for fabulous distances, all to get a handle on “WHEN are we?

But creating a calendar that’s accurate over a long period of time is a harder thing to do on Earth than one might think it should be. That’s because a year—one revolution of the Earth around the sun—takes approximately 365.242189 days.

That pesky fraction of a day has been driving humans to distraction (and to doing higher math) for millennia. We’ve created intercalary days, weeks, or even months to periodically adjust our calendars and keep them accurate. (It’s enough to give one an embolism—sorry; bad joke: use the hyperlink to look at definitions 2 and 3).

How long is a year—in space?

Of course, Earth is in space, so that’s a silly question. A year is however long it takes to orbit the local star once. That’s different for every planet, planetoid, asteroid, moon, or other space-based object, because all orbit on different paths.

Including Rana Station. At least, up to a point. But when you’re creating a calendar for an exoplanet in a different system, a variety of rules may apply.

I’m certainly not the only sf writer to approach the problem of if—and if so, whatcalendar to use in their stories. Probably one of the best-known science fictional calendars is Star Trek’sStardate” system.

Screen-capture of a monitor with the signature Star-Trek-style interface from a “The Next Generation” episode.
TNG episode screen-capture via Memory Alpha Fandom.

It stands to reason that if you use the “Captain’s Log” as a framing device, you need a login time/date for it to feel authentic. The Stardate sounds futuristic, but what do those numbers really mean? Turns out they have less to do with futuristic dates than they do with episodes and seasons of the show.

Problems to solve, for Rana Station

I haven’t specified an exact future century in which my XK9 stories are set, or in what existing star system. In a time-honored sfnal tradition, I chose to set it “far away, in a different time,” rather than get too specific. Sometimes I tell people it’s set in the “Twenty-Fourth-and-a-Half Century!!

I’m more interested in telling my chosen stories than I am in charting a detailed and inevitably-wrong predictive “history” of future umpty-centuries. Who knows what technologies will have been developed, lost, and then recreated (or not) by then? In a multiverse, does it really matter?

But when we get down to more immediate times and dates, I needed to go into more detail. Year-dates within the Chayko System all begin from the time humans arrived in-system, after they were granted permission by the Alliance to claim the planet. Rana Stationers also often speak of the Ranan year (0-94, as of The Other Side of Fear), meaning how many (Chaykoan) years people have lived there. There are reference sources they can use when they need to cite Alliance-wide dates or Earth dates.

But, as I discussed in last week’s post, Rana Stationers hail from many different Earth origins, and they’ve preserved many of their heritage customs, including religions and holidays.

Celebrating Earth holidays outside the Solar system

Creating a calendar is actually not that hard, if it’s for a fictional time and place “somewhere out there.” And if you aren’t trying to connect it in any way with Earth. Perhaps this is one reason why so many sf writers destroy our Earth in the “history” leading up to their story.

It’s also pretty easy to see how many holidays of Earth origin could be adapted to local conditions on an exoplanet. It’s entirely likely that the new planet would have seasons, and shorter or longer periods of daylight throughout the course of its year. Holidays based on solstices and equinoxes? No problem!

Lunar calendars would be more of a problem, though. Islam, Theravada Buddhism, and other world religions base their holiday timing on phases and cycles of Earth’s moon. But what if your planet has no moon? Or if it has several? What if you live on a moon?

A brown horse looms over a small trail of dots on a wall in Lascaux, France. A mystery for years, scientists now believe those dots may be the oldest lunar calendar ever found. The map at right shows locations of Lascaux and Peche Merle caves in France, plus Altamira in Spain. All contain priceless Paleolithic art.
At L, a line of dots may be a 15,000-year-old lunar calendar inside Lascaux cavern in France. At R, a map shows locations of three caves filled with stunning prehistoric art: Altamira, Lascaux, and Peche Merle. (BBC News/Khan Academy)

Chayko, for instance, is the human-inhabited planet in my XK9 stories. It has two small moons that used to be part of its planetary mass. They orbit closer to the planet than our Earth’s moon, and exert complex influences on Chaykoan oceans, ecosystems, and organisms that only sometimes resemble the effect of our moon on Earth.

Problems timing Earth holidays on Rana Station

Creating a calendar for naturally-occurring planetary bodies and their moons is one thing. What about a space station such as Rana? No moons. Banks of computerized mirrors adjust continually to reflect light from the system’s star into the sky-windows, filtered and directed to provide an optimal light spectrum for crop growth. On-Station, there are no moving shadows to contend with, as there are on Earth, no daily “rotation of the sun” (although the habitat wheels rotate, people can’t really see that from inside).

It’s always “high noon” on Rana Station, except for periods when the light is dimmed to simulate dusk, dawn, or full-on night. My illustrator friends Jody A. Lee and Lucy A. Synk have both complained about this. They’re right: Light and shadow patterns at noon are boring. They’re also unhelpful for creating 3-D visual effects.

But they’re great for delivering consistent light to growing crops. Days on Rana Station are always the same length. The temperature range is always optimal for a variety of agriculture. It’s not exactly “Camelot,” but the effect is something like living in a perpetually-ideal subtropical zone.

Distant crops grow on the terraces of Starboard Hill on Rana Station.
Detail from artwork ©2020 by Jody A. Lee.

Planet Chayko is only 23 hours away from Rana. This makes it a far more relevant context-point for Ranans than faraway Earth (two jump-points away). But Chayko has a slightly smaller mass, a slightly faster spin, and a somewhat longer orbit than Earth. No unaltered Earth calendar will work there.

Just coordinating a conference call between Rana and Chayko is hard enough! Setting any kind of Earth-relevant timing for a holiday is an exercise in number-crunching frustration. Clearly, compromises must be made.

Intercalary days to the rescue!

Planet Chayko does have seasons. It does have solstices and equinoxes. Thus, it’s possible to divide the year into twelve, fairly equal periods, named after Earth months. Yes, in the XK9 books, January, February, and all the other months we know as part of Earth’s most widely-used Gregorian Calendar have gone to space.

But the plain fact remains that a slightly faster spin and a slightly longer orbit both mean more days in the year than 365.2425 (or 365.242189, depending on your preferred approach). On Chayko (and consequently on Rana Station), every month contains 6 to 10 intercalary days not found on Earth calendars (Yes, February the 32nd is an actual date on Chayko—and therefore, on Rana Station).

We’re used to the December holidays being on similar days each year.
We’re used to the December holidays being on similar days each year. (Digital Illustration by Jan S. Gephardt, with lots of help from 123rf stock images.)

This means that Chaykoan Solstice and Christmas, for instance, don’t happen at the same interval as they do on Earth. In fact, Christmas, which always happens on December 25, often occurs before the Chaykoan northern hemisphere’s Winter Solstice.

Practitioners of several faiths that traditionally have varied their dates according to the lunar calendar have opted to follow the lead of Mahayana Buddhists, and celebrate formerly-variable holidays on fixed dates. Others use dates established on Earth for the closest year to the Chaykoan cycle. As you might imagine, disputes have arisen (dogmatists will be dogmatic, after all).

But somehow, they managed this business of creating a calendar. Somehow, things happen about the same time each year. And at some point, all the holidays get celebrated.

Even if it takes till December the 40th.

IMAGE CREDITS:

VIDEOS: Many thanks to National Geographic on YouTube for the clip from “Stonehenge Decoded,” and to “Jayypeezy” on YouTube for the clip of “Duck Dodgers in the 24th-and-a-Half-Century.”

PHOTOS: I’m grateful to Memory Alpha Fandom, for the screen-capture of Jean-Luc Picard’s “Captain’s Log.” Thanks very much to BBC News, for the photo of the world’s oldest known lunar calendar from the Chamber of the Bulls in France’s Lascaux Cavern. The map of caves known for Paleolithic art is ©Google, via Khan Academy.

ILLUSTRATIONS: The partial glimpse of agriculture on the terraces of Starboard Hill in the Sirius River Valley is ©2020 by Jody A. Lee; all rights reserved. I created the calendar illustration using images from 123rf. Many thanks to all!

Shady and Ace

Hints and glimpses

To anyone who asks, “Can you tell me about your book?” I can only offer hints and glimpses. Of course, that’s all any of us can offer, short of a full read.

But which hints and glimpses?

It becomes marketing

It becomes marketing, whether we authors and our might-be-readers care to think of it that way or not.

The quote from Cassandra Clare reads, “I thought . . . that we could at least talk about books.”
(PictureQuotes)

We not only want to give the asker a good idea of what our story’s about—we want them to think it’s interesting. That it could be a fun and fulfilling read.

That they really need to read it (buy it) right now.

So the hints and glimpses can’t be any old snippets. We want to give our might-be-readers the good stuff. The most intriguing glimpses. The best provocative hints to pique their curiosity. We want to give clues to “What kind of story is this?” To make our ideal readers sit up and think, “Oh, that sounds promising!”

And then, crucially, to click through and make it their own.

What goes into good hints and glimpses?

Oh, man, if we could formulate that and bottle it, no ad campaign would ever fail again! The fact is, no one quite knows. Each book is different. Each reader is different. The variables go fractal real fast.

It’s not that people haven’t tried. For instance, I’ve gotten some helpful guidelines from teachers such as Bryan Cohen (full disclosure: I’ve only taken his free “Challenge” courses so far). Alex Wong has some good suggestions. And I’ve heard great things about Robert J. Ryan’s guidelines from trusted friends in the business.

But after a while no formula, if followed too closely, yields fresh results. Every blurb, every tagline, every story sentence will start to sound the same. It’s kinda like watching too many movie trailers in a row, when they’re all built on the same structure.

(Auralnauts)

Wait. Nostalgia moment! Remember movies? In, like, theaters? With surround-sound and a huge screen and sometimes even kinetic effects built into the seats? *Sigh!* Will there be any movie-theater survivors after Covid-19?

Visual + verbal cues

I’ve been thinking about this question of what makes for good hints and glimpses, a lot recently. My design work over the last couple of weeks for Weird Sisters Publishing focused on ways to create a single image that might rouse someone’s curiosity about one of our stories.

Maybe you’ve followed my “creating a cover with . . .” posts. (for Deep Ellum Pawn with Chaz Kemp, for The Other Side of Fear with Lucy A. Synk, and most recently for Deep Ellum Blues, once again with Chaz).

If so, you’ll recognize some of the elements I used: developmental images from Chaz augmented the messages of words and cover art, as in this one for Deep Ellum Pawn.

The picture shows a Hell Hound next to the cover of “Deep Ellum Pawn,” with the words: “The Golden Fiddle is back. The Hell Hounds are Ms. Eddy’s problem now.”
(Deep Ellum Pawn artwork ©2019 by Chaz Kemp)

Likewise, you may recognize Mudcat from the cover-creation post for Deep Ellum Blues.

This picture shows Mudcat playing his tobacco-burst Strat next to the cover of “Deep Ellum Blues,” with the words, “Will Ms. Eddy intervene when an old adversary threatens a young musician in Deep Ellum?”
(Deep Ellum Blues artwork ©2020 by Chaz Kemp)

Chaz Kemp creates his images purely digitally, building up the image in layers. This makes it easier to change the sizes and positions of the elements in the composition. It also makes it possible to use the developmental images for purposes such as the blog posts and ads.

New visuals for the XK9s

But both of our XK9 cover artists, Jody A. Lee for What’s Bred in the Bone, and Lucy A. Synk, for The Other Side of Fear, are painters. They might make sketches beforehand (see the cover-creation post about Lucy’s work). They also may go back into the image with Photoshop to adjust small aspects. But they don’t produce the same kind of digital images in layers.

It makes the sketching and developmental phases more crucial! I can hardly wait to tell the story of how Jody and I worked together on the cover for A Bone to Pick.

It also creates a need for a different kind of character-developmental image. Lucy and I have been working on a series of “Pack portraits.” These are individual images of each XK9 in the Orangeboro Pack. I plan to use them for a variety of things, including “Character Profile” blog posts in the future.

This is a screen-capture of the sign-up form, which features Lucy’s painting of XK9 Petunia at the top with the words, “Join the Pack!” There’s an actual sign-up form you can use at the bottom of this page if you’d like to receive my monthly newsletter.
(Artwork © 2020 by Lucy A Synk; form by ConvertKit)

But you might already have spotted XK9 Petunia Yeller-Melody on my newsletter subscription form (sign up at the bottom of this post, to get first looks at things like the cover artwork Jody just delivered for A Bone to Pick!)

Incorporating covers with characters

Here’s what I put together for What’s Bred in the Bone. It uses Jody’s cover, Lucy’s “running Rex” image, and a tagline built from successful Amazon ads.

A full-body image of Rex gallops toward the cover of “What’s Bred in the Bone.” Below, the text reads, “In his quest to share an important clue with human investigators, XK9 Rex lands himself and his Packmates in mortal danger. How can he save them?”
(What’s Bred in the Bone artwork ©2019 by Jody A. Lee and ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk)

Finally, here’s the picture for The Other Side of Fear. All the artwork here is Lucy’s. The tagline is taken from a successful Amazon ad. Since then, I’ve rewritten the book description. Read it on multiple platforms.

In this picture, XK9 Shady play-bows next to the cover of “The Other Side of Fear” and the words, “A voyage of self-discovery with an uplifted sapient police dog, “The Other Side of Fear” is a science fiction novella set just before the events in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy.”
(All artwork for The Other Side of Fear is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look “under the hood” at some of the ways we at Weird Sisters Publishing develop our pictures and messages. Please sign up for my newsletter if you’d like to receive monthly “insider scoops” and first looks at new projects and art.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to PictureQuotes for the Cassandra Clare quote, and to Auralnauts, for the “How to make a Blockbuster Movie Trailer” video. Weird Sisters Publishing and I are deeply grateful to Chaz Kemp, Jody A. Lee, and Lucy A. Synk for all the wonderful pictures they’ve blessed us with.

The Weird Sisters Publishing LLC logo shows a black-outline cartoon of two sisters with their arms linked. One holds an e-reader, the other a hardbound book.

Forward momentum on publishing efforts

It’s kinda like being pregnant. Except it takes longer

No matter how much people tell you your life will change after the baby is born, you can never really “get it,” until after you’ve become a parent. 

There’s this divide between “before baby” and “after baby” that can never be crossed in reverse. On the far side of that Rubicon is Terra Incognita (with or without dragons) that you’ll never understand till you get there.

If my publishing efforts turn out as well as my kids did, I’m good. However, right at this moment the “contractions” have set in, but the results haven’t finished coming into the world, yet

This image shows the Jody A. Lee cover for Jan S. Gephardt's science fiction novel, "What's Bred in the Bone." It depicts a scene in which the protagonist, XK9 Rex, follows a scent trail to a dangerous underworld neighborhood called the "Five-Ten," accompanied by his new colleague, Lead Special Agent Shiva Shimon of the Station Bureau of Investigation.
Cover art © 2019 by Jody A. Lee

The manuscript for What’s Bred in the Bone is finished and edited and mostly formatted in Vellum.

The gorgeous cover by Jody A. Lee is finished.

The ISBNs are acquired. I’ve mostly nailed down the barcode resource, I think. I’m prepared to register my copyright.

I keep struggling to get my emailing list up and running, but if you’ve tried to sign up for it you know I’m not there yet. Soon! I promise!

And also, because my life isn’t busy enough, my sister Gigi Sherrell Norwood and I have pooled our resources to create Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. We plan to publish my books, her books, re-publish her late husband Warren C. Norwood’s books, and possibly publish work by others, too (but not yet).

Bold white letters spell Weird Sisters Publishing LLC next to the company's logo, a black outline of two cartoon sisters, one holding an e-reader, the other a paper book. The background is taken from part of the cover art by Jody A. Lee for Jan S. Gephardt's novel What's Bred in the Bone.

The Weird Sisters Facebook Page went live Wednesday. The website’s coming. It all needs to be done at once, preferably yesterday. But at least we’re on our way.

IMAGES: The cover art for What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee, and is used here with permission. The design work for both the cover and the Weird Sisters Publishing banner are by Jan S. Gephardt.

Becoming Weird Sisters Publishing

Gigi Sherrell Norwood

Regular readers of this blog (if you are one, THANK YOU!!) may recall that I’ve published at least one guest-post by my sister, Gigi Sherrell Norwood (Orchestra Dreams). 

What you may not know is that she is herself a talented writer, and she’s also the widow of science fiction writer Warren C. Norwood.

Yes, we’re kind of a cottage industry all in the family (and that’s not even counting the emerging editorial expertise of my son and frequent sf convention companion Tyrell Gephardt). 

It was perhaps inevitable that we’d do the writing/publishing equivalent of saying, “Hey! Let’s put on a show!” (note: Gigi has a BFA in theatre).

The result is Weird Sisters Publishing LLC, a small press publishing enterprise registered (as of February) and operating out of Kansas. As you might guess from our name, Gigi’s studies included an emphasis in Shakespeare. And, we must face it, we’ve never exactly been conventional. 

“Weird Sisters” just kind of fit.

We’re starting our enterprise with my debut novel, What’s Bred in the Bone, to be released in May, as well as an urban fantasy novella by Gigi, titled Deep Ellum Pawnlater in the summer. 

We hope to follow that soon with more of my XK9 novels, and six of the novels in Warren’s catalogue, the rights to which have reverted to his estate (AKA Gigi). We plan new covers, and a full range of formats. 

Gigi also is in possession of two unpublished novels by Warren, and we are in pursuit of other titles whose ownership is less clear.

Gigi has several other novels in her backlist, not written in collaboration with Warren (she collaborated on some of the Time Police series with him, as did Mel Odom). 

We’re not currently seeking submissions for Weird Sisters Publishing, but that might change in the future. We plan to focus on character-driven science fiction, urban fantasy, and related works.

IMAGES: Gigi provided the photo of herself. It is used with her permission. Cover art for What’s Bred in the Bone is ©2019 by Jody A. Lee, and is used with her permission.

How quotes about women in the arts . . . mostly weren’t.

The Artdog Quote(s) of the Week

In recognition of Women’s History Month, I thought I’d focus on quotes about women in the arts as this month’s theme. 

Yeah, try Googling that phrase under “images.” The quote that seemed to come back with just incredible frequency was this one:

On a brown, kind of parchment-looking background, black letters spell out this quote: "A Bachelor of Arts is one who makes love to a lot of women, and yet has the art to remain a bachelor." It was said by Helen Rowland, who is listed as an American journalist, who lived from 1875-1950.

Um, EXCUSE ME, but what does that have to do with Women in the Arts?

One image that came up near the top of the search results is a poster visible on the Tate website (but not available for reposting) about the very tongue-in-cheek “advantages” of being a woman artist in 1988“Advantage” #1, “Working without the pressure of success,” gives a taste of how the list is oriented. 

Then compare a couple of other quotes that came up several times:

This image is a black background with white lettering on it, giving a quote by Hedy Lamarr, who is listed as an "Austrian Actress." She said, "It is easier for women to succeed in business, the arts, and politics in America than in Europe."

Okay, that’s fairly hopeful, if dated. But then there’s this:

This is a photo of a night sky over mountains, which creates a backdrop for the Thomas Beecham quote: "All the arts in America are a gigantic racket run by unscrupulous men for unhealthy women."

Well, as they used to say, ain’t that a kick in the head? I don’t think either gender comes off looking too good, in Beecham’s estimation. In the age of Harvey Weinstein, however, it’s hard to say he was inaccurate about the existence of “unscrupulous men.”

Number one that came up was from an article about conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, and it’s not exactly a paean of optimism, either:

This is a photo of a sign that says, "YOU ARE A VICTIM OF THE RULES YOU LIVE BY."

I . . . sorry. After spending a stimulating month of February reading engrossing fiction by women such as Becky ChambersDiana Wynne JonesMartha WellsJennifer Foehner Wells, and Nnedi Okorafor, and having recently delighted in the artwork of Simini BlockerKaren Ann Hollingsworth, and Jody A. Lee, not to mention amazing new artwork being produced (but not yet posted online) by Lucy A. SynkI actually felt pretty good about women in the arts

I genuinely thought I’d find a more optimistic range of quotes. Frankly, sisters, we owe ourselves a better set of quotes. What’s on offer is pathetic.

Are things perfect? No. Humans aren’t, so human things won’t be. But things don’t have to be uniformly bleak. Women in ALL of the arts are doing amazing things. If no one else is talking about it, then we ought to begin. 

IMAGES: The Helen Rowland quote about bachelors is from Quote HD. So is the Hedy Lamarr quote. The Thomas Beecham quote is courtesy of Quotefancy. The “Rules you live by” quote-image comes from a thoughtful essay by Lauren C. Byrd on her “Make Art History” blog.

Re-Re-Revised

Jan S. Gephardt at the keyboard. Photo by Colette Waters.

Did you ever have one of those projects you thought was just about done . . . except you needed to adjust this one thing.

And then that one thing led logically to another. And after that you discovered an excellent new technique and it would apply to this current project, so now if you just revamp these bits . . . .

Eventually it HAS to end. In this case I’m talking about the novel I am THIS CLOSE to having completely ready to start productionON or before September 3, 2018, it shall be done (or else).

For reals. mean it. Friends who know me will point, laugh, and say, “Got THAT right!” when I tell you I am not a fast writer. For all my ongoing efforts to be a well-organized, methodical “plotter,” the “pantser” in my soul frequently takes me walkabout, as a way to open up whole new projects through the “discovery method.”

Here’s the color comp for the cover of What’s Bred in the Bone, created by one of my favorite artists, Jody A. Lee, based on a scene from the book.

may not live long enough to finish all of the projects I already have in my files (partially developed through said “discovery method” and mostly set in the same fictional universe), but by God I’ll have fun writing them. I also hope people will have fun reading them–which necessitates finishing them, and publishing them.

That’s my current task: sternly striving not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and working on finishing a final, publishable version of What’s Bred in the Bone.

The world I currently inhabit for as many of my waking hours as possible these days is the one I’ve been writing about (and in which I’m making the aforementioned revisions).

Set in an indeterminate future era which I call the Twenty-Fourth-and-a-Half Century, most of the action takes place on Torus Two of Rana Habitat Space Station, through the eyes of an XK9: an enormous, genetically-engineered, cybernetically-enhanced police dog named Rex, as well as his mate Shady and his human partner Charlie.

Readings from What’s Bred in the Bone that I’ve done at science fiction conventions, such as DemiCon 29 and SoonerCon 27, have been met with enthusiasm, which is encouraging. Most of my beta-readers have been enthusiastic, too. If you’ll be at Worldcon 76, I have a 30-minute reading scheduled there on Monday, Aug. 20, 11:00 a.m. in Room 211A. I hope to see you there!

IMAGES: Many thanks to the talented Colette Waters for the enhanced reality represented by her photo of me, and to the amazing Jody A. Lee, for the color comp of the cover-art-that-will-be for What’s Bred in the Bone.

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