Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Brief History of Staff (2 of 4)

While Boo was establishing herself as master of the household, her progeny were making themselves to home. Boo was an incredible cat mother but she was still a cat—these kittens needed human-style discipline. Now, over time, all the kittens (except for Chaos, of course) found loving homes, but in the meantime, they were too many cats in too small a space. It was during this time that I learned the three techniques of cat training (which my lovely wife will be totally scandalized by my telling in public).

First of all, they must know that there is no piece of furniture too big to be moved if a defiant kitten is hiding under it. Sure, it’s a pain and often the effort is more trouble than it’s worth but even if the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, you must move the couch/table/car/mobile home and follow through on their punishment. It’s an important part of drilling into their little heads that you are the dominant species.

Second, you must teach them fear (to fear you specifically) and you must do it in a way that is in their language without being physically cruel. My recommended method is to simply grab them when they’re small and stick their entire head in your mouth. Just hold them there for a second or so (and don’t close your mouth!) then pull them back out. They’ll get the message. Nothing says who’s the dominant predator like realizing that your entire head could be bitten off in one shot. And a lesson learned young sticks with them forever. (Note: In no way do I advocate actually biting the cat or actually harming them. This is just about making a point that even the most rebellious of kitten brains can understand.)

The third technique is rather questionable and may not be suitable for everyone but it worked for me. I was faced with (at the time) a half-dozen kittens, all of whom seemed to feel obligated to begin marking territory at the same time. I could tell the whole story but I’m pretty sure my Good Lady Wife would have a fit and forbid it so let me simply give you the general principle: Once you demonstrate to all the would-be kingdom markers that you can mark more territory in seconds than they could hope to in a week, they should be intimidated into surrendering. It worked for me. One ‘demonstration’ and there was never—NEVER—another ‘marking’ issue. Desperate times call for desperate measures and the results seem to have justified the procedure.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Brief History of Staff (1 of 4)

Cats? I’ve known a few. Very few of them that acted like cats though; I suppose that’s why I put up with them.

The entire cat situation began years ago shortly after I was married. My Good Lady Wife was working in a greenhouse where a stray cat had taken up residence and deposited a litter of mewling kittens. The owner was insistent in his stance that the creatures be caught, stuffed in a bag, and tossed into the nearest body of water. And so it came to pass that my soft-hearted wife convinced her equally soft-headed husband that the poor wastrels must come to abide with us, but only for the short period of time it would take for them to find new homes. In the case of one, that period of time was nigh-on seventeen years.

First home was the slowest runner, the three-legged magician we have all come to know and love as Chaos. His mother and siblings soon followed. Of them, I’ll discuss only the one who stayed: Boo, mother of all, black cat extraordinaire of black cats. In truth, she was not a cat; she was a dragon. The first clue was her eyes, an attribute shared by Chaos. They were a deep gold laced with green as if her eyes were topographical maps of a sprawling, gemstone world.

A survivor par excellence, she spent the first few months of her life with us hiding safely in her ‘cave’ under the bed and, by the time she began to emerge in the daylight, the remainder of her kittens were safely crammed into our little apartment. Over time, she proved to be an excellent mother and taught her offspring many useful skills like team-hunting.

This was back about the time that cheese flavored potato chips, specifically cheddar cheese and sour cream flavor, had first began to appear in our local markets. I liked them; the cats loved them. Strange as it may seem, Chaos especially loved chips and bread (the additional attraction of cheese was a given) and the other cats weren’t far behind. Occasionally I would share chips with him; more often I would fend him off or hide from him in order to snack in peace. And then came the day I saw his mother’s training pay off. Chaos diligently watched me eat then began to pull at my pant’s leg, eventually climbing onto my lap. Lifting my chip safely away from him, over my shoulder, I heard a satisfied crunch as his mother took the largest bite of the chip she possibly could and sprint away. Pack hunting, out-smarting the human, and Boo took the first cut. It was a harbinger of things to come and indicative of the cat’s uncanny intelligence.

After seeing the eyes and the mind of a dragon in the body of a cat, I shouldn’t have been surprised at her love of metallic baubles and her hording instinct. The hording, I attributed to her years as a scavenger. It became apparent early on that she had once been someone’s beloved pet only to be dumped later to survive by her wits alone—and she didn’t just survive, she prospered.

I first saw the hording in regard to food. I had prepared a cookie sheet of chicken nuggets and left them on the stove-top to cool. Minutes later, I spied a black cat shooting toward the bedroom, nugget in her mouth. I was amused and let her go. Once again, the cat had taken advantage of a human lapse and who was I to deprive her of her rightful gain? I returned to my book and, a short while later, entered the kitchen to prepare my plate. The tray of nuggets was half empty. I hadn’t been robbed of one piece but a dozen. Boo had been diligently toting food as fast as she could from kitchen to lair, storing up against future famine.

Small object disappeared with regularity. Earrings, coins, pewter miniatures, screws from a disassembled vacuum cleaner, small pieces of blown glass—nothing seemed safe. By now I had my suspicions and I followed them into the dragon’s den. Sure enough, laying on my stomach under the bed, under the baleful gaze of a very displeased cat, I found the missing objects—and more. To this day, I’ve no idea how she managed to wrestle object almost as big as she was into her lair but they were there. It was a respectable horde for a raccoon—or a dragon.

A final story on Boo’s love of loot and glitter. I was sorting coins into stacks so that I could then, in turn put them in wrappers, and had the table covered in stacks of dimes. Just as I finished, Boo leapt onto the table, took a look at the situation, and, with a contemptuous paw, slapped the neat stacks into a more comfortable mound. She then sprawled across the top of it and began to purr contentedly. I kid you not. It was in that rather surreal moment that I realized I could no longer deny the obvious. She might look like a cat but this creature that shared my home was, in fact, a dragon.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Questions on Cover Art

When you are browsing, how important is cover art to which titles you select and actually buy?
For better or worse, it seems that cover art is the single most important factor for readers when they browse. Reviews, recommendations, and familiarity with the author’s previous work figure prominently in buying but, when a reader is wandering the stacks with no preset ideas in mind, the cover becomes the dominant factor.
When discussing book covers and cover art, it becomes rapidly apparent that, in the minds of most readers, the two things are one and the same. The cover art is not just the picture on the front but expands to include the entire structure of the book’s cover—the font and placement of the title, the layout of the spine, even the back cover blurb and publisher quotes and how they are presented all blend together into a singular entity. This makes the follow up question, ‘what is good cover art?’, doubly difficult to evaluate.
A marketable cover walks a razor’s edge. On the one hand, it must be different enough from the others around it to attract the browser’s attention. On the other, it must be similar enough not to confuse or put off the reader. Horror covers need to be scary, adventure books need exciting covers, the reader needs to be able to ‘categorize’ the book, by its cover, at a glance. Not only must the books cover broadcast its genre but, to a lesser extent, it needs to project a similarity to other in genre books of similar subject or style. Most series try to keep the same cover artist for all the covers in the series. Some go so far as to keep the same artist or at least the same artistic style for all of an author’s works. The selling power of Frazetta covers in fantasy is a good example. Graphic novels provide another insight into the symbiosis between artistic style and internal style by literally wearing their style on their cover.
But, with similarity is the rule of the day, what places one book ahead of another in the browser’s eyes? Obviously the subtle differences but what makes for a successful ‘distinction’ is very much in the eyes of the beholder and seems to be as mystical as any fictional arcana. This is where the cover structure comes into its own. Title placement, fonts, text layout on cover, spine and back—all these provide some of the greatest opportunities to individualize a cover, usually in surprisingly subtle ways. Some works demand a flowing, scripted font for the title. Some readers greatly prefer block lettering on the spine. Press quotes from reviewers hook some browsers and repulse others. Here, knowledge of the nature, style, and preferences of the books target audience is an absolute necessity and everything must be tailored to please the eyes and attract the attention of that audience.
There is no one formula that emerges for cover art. It is, pardon the pun, an artform. Every nuance of the cover has to be tailored to synchronize with the potential desired reader. Salinger’s classic Catcher in the Rye cover of gold lettering on a stark red background seems to defy all conventional wisdom but actually embodies it—the cover speaks of the book, powerfully, and reaches out to the reader from the shelves, distinct in its lack of trappings. On a personal note, I am constantly surprised by how the cover design of my own recent book, Speakers and Kings, has the power to draw readers, piquing their curiosity with the absence of pictorial art on the cover while the simplicity reassures them that the book is ‘classy’.
The cover of a book is possibly its strongest selling point and one of the most often overlooked aspects. It leads one to wonder, how many good books failed to sell because of the cover? And what a terrible disservice to the author that many publishing houses push them aside for this final step in the creative process—the writer’s foremost and final chance to portray his work in a single visual moment to his future readers.