Ditching the nudity, but not the sex

by Sandra Hutchison

I’ve been contemplating bringing THE AWFUL MESS: A LOVE STORY (2013) in from wide distribution to Kindle Select, where various promotional opportunities can give it a boost. But the cover was a problem. Because it had a naked lady on it, sort of.

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.

Still widely distributed, without any recent promotions, I get the occasional foreign sale through Kobo and almost nothing in domestic or foreign sales from any of the other retailers except Amazon. About about one in five Kindle purchasers of THE RIBS AND THIGH BONES OF DESIRE (2014), which is in Kindle Select, also buy THE AWFUL MESS, which is nice, but will never get it ranking high on its own.

As indie authors with any experience know, if I go back into Kindle Select, even for a while, I can more easily try to goose those sales a bit. (This will indeed hurt my ranking at the other sites, but as noted above, I don’t have really have one.)

However, there was little point in going back into Kindle Select if I couldn’t at least promote it on Amazon from time to time. And so I had an exchange with Amazon about their AMS marketing standards and whether this cover would meet them. (Thankfully, they were willing to consider the question.)

No, I was eventually told, there could be no nudity. Not even tasteful, blurred nudity.

Evolution of a coverSo I tried going back to a more professional version of my first (homemade) cover. But sales fell during that test, so I returned to the naked lady.

Next, I tried drawing a blurry underwater bathing suit on that naked lady. That was pretty funny.

Then I decided to try to cover up her blurry naked behind with a nice blurb. 500x700theawfulmess_ebookyellowquoteWould that be okay, I asked Amazon? Nope, that was still no go. Even if we couldn’t see it, nudity was being suggested. (The helpful representative told me that standards have toughened a bit recently — even a male nipple disqualifies AMS marketing nowadays.)

I suppose this sensibility may also explain why I’ve had a harder time getting BookBub and other slots lately. Who knows why, though? My books are getting dated now, definitely backlist, so that’s a possibility. I won’t shut up about the current election, or race issues, or whatever, so maybe they think I’m too outspoken. Or maybe they blacklisted me for my post “The Five Stages of Grief of Being Rejected by BookBub,” even though it was free advertising.

Making your opinions public as an author or any small business person is always a risk. But so is publishing a book, right? I’d rather err on the side of telling the truth as I see it than tip-toeing around.

Of course, I’m not depending on my writing to pay the bills, so I get to make that choice from a position of privilege. Many others cannot.

Besides the really beautiful design by Damon Za, what I like about that semi-nude cover is that it signals the book might include some racy stuff. Which it does, in two short sex scenes. Some readers have an issue with that, which is understandable, although I could wish they would read the whole product description before they start reading.

Meanwhile, of course, other readers are disappointed when I don’t have any explicit sex, as I’ve noticed with my beta readers on BARDWELL’S FOLLY. It has some bedroom scenes between heroine and hero, just as RIBS does, but getting graphic about slot A and tab B in the two of them didn’t, to my mind, serve any non-prurient artistic purpose.

Occasionally I’ve thought of excising the explicit aspects from THE AWFUL MESS, too. But I feel those explicit scenes do add something to the characterization in that novel. And anyway, what’s done is done (except, cough, with covers and typos).

I do still, sometimes, toy with bringing back the clean PG-13 version, much as MM Jaye did with a recent romance, but since my clean version sold a total of two copies back in the day I doubt it would be worth the trouble.

tugboat-cover-for-the-awful-messIt’s not as if a novel addressing misogyny and gay rights is suddenly going to find great favor in Amazon’s Christian romance market. The only reason I still toy with the idea is that I’d just like to try marketing it as a progressive Christian novel. Many Evangelicals are more progressive or at least less prudish than you might expect, and there are plenty of Christian readers like me who are quite liberal.

Anyway, I just recently purchased from Tugboat Design a pre-designed cover of a fully dressed woman that I hope gives at least a suggestion of sex while also, perhaps, hinting at the theme. I really like it, even though I personally envision Mary having slightly darker brown hair and even though I’m still not entirely sure what is going on in this photo. (What do you think?)

As long as I was investing in real design work, I had Deborah at Tugboat clean up my design for BARDWELL’S FOLLY, and get the paperback cover done, an effort I was procrastinating figuring out for myself. Hopefully this means the ARC will be ready next week to start going out for review. (If you’re a blogger or reviewer, feel free to request one).

bardwells-folly-tugboat-designIf you’re a writer who includes bedroom scenes that are more or less explicit, how are you handling that issue in your cover design and marketing?

Or, if you’re a reader who has strong opinions one way or the other, I’d love to hear from you. Do you think explicit scenes usually add to your experience of a novel, or get in the way? And even if you don’t mind them yourself, does it keep you from recommending a book?

 

 

 

Sometimes less is more

And not just in writing. This blog post is going to be short because I spent today doing something I’ve been meaning to do ever since I moved in: getting rid of this hideous shed.

Ugly metal shed

It was ugly, it was damaged, it was in poor repair, and animals I don’t know personally were using it. My son and I started unscrewing it and quickly realized that a crowbar, some muscle, and listening for the satisfying sound of screws going pop-pop-pop was a lot faster. Eventually we got to the point when we could just pull the whole frame down and start twisting it apart.

007

I’m not going to replace it. I don’t need a shed. I have a garage, which already holds more stuff I need to get rid of (a vanity inherited from the previous owner, for example), and I haven’t even added shelves to it yet. I have a basement, too. So why bother with a shed? It’s just one more place in which to lose tools and equipment.

I think this space full of potential is much better.

empty spot where shed once stood

Obviously, this is still a work in progress. The locust on that awful slope needs to come down, but it’s on my neighbor’s property (which could also stand to see some paint — it looks fine in the front, but I think they like to pretend this side doesn’t exist). The arborvitae that is half bald and split under snow this winter needs to come down, too.

I’d like to build a retaining wall, but I don’t have the budget to pay someone else to do that right now. So I’ll have to see what I come up with.  If nothing else, it would be nice to try to fit my son’s car in the driveway the next time we’re getting 20 inches of snow.

At least I don’t have to start every morning with a view of that hideous shed anymore. I consider that great progress! Tomorrow morning I’ll get up early and drive it and the other accumulated dead appliances and scrap metal to the scrap yard.

010

As I told a friend today, I’m trying to get a lot of stuff done before I come up on my first-year anniversary in this house. I’m afraid that, as she put it, inertia will take over. I still have Chartreuse green walls, for example. But now I have central air instead of window air conditioners to wrestle with, and those walls are going to go ivory as soon as the semester is done. I even have a solar roof to power that central air, although I’m still trying to figure out what is going on financially with that — I’ll do a blog post when I have wrestled THAT mystery to that ground.

solar roofSo I’m feeling pretty accomplished today. Hey, I even got the weekly blog post done. AND I fit in a friend’s play reading. One of these days I’ll even get the onions planted before they give up on me.

Reminders

April 30 is the last day US residents can enter to win an author-signed copy of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire, and I’m not sure if that ends at the beginning of the day or the end. Until then, there’s an easy way to enter right on my home page.

I’m still formatting Chapters 1 and 2 of Bardwell’s Folly, the next novel, and sending it to my subscriber list soon. They get the first peek. Sign up for that list here.

So you need to write a literary analysis…

This week I’m borrowing from the other side of my life, the English professor side.

I’m hoping that putting this post out there will help a few students avoid those “free essay” web sites or CliffsNotes they might otherwise be tempted to borrow too much from. (In case you’re not sure: YES, that’s considered plagiarism. It’s not as if you were planning to cite them, right?)

I know how bewildering it can be to face a literary analysis assignment. A lot of professors and teachers have their own unspoken preferences about how a book report or literary essay or critical essay should be constructed. If you pay attention, you can tell what they are, because all their lectures about literature you read in class will do exactly that.

Seriously. I once took an undergraduate poetry class with a poet at UMass. Every single lecture pointed out the homoerotic qualities of whatever poems we were reading, or at least what they had to say about being a man. I assume there must have been some female poets represented in his syllabus, but I can’t remember any. And don’t get me started about the creative writing professor who just had to do a public Freudian analysis of everything we wrote for his class.

Your high school English teacher probably pushed you to do Formalist or New Criticism — to analyze the piece in terms of its literary techniques: characterization, plot, setting, mood, foreshadowing, irony, symbolism, and theme. Doing that helped you learn those terms.

Of course, I fear this is also how we get students who think that authors spend their days cruelly plotting ways to “hide” obscure things in their writing. That’s not really how it works.*

So how do you figure out what to write? In my college classes, if I ask for a literary essay I just want you to use evidence to argue some point about the text. You must find textual evidence in the piece — and possibly in criticism or historical sources or biographical sources that you will also cite — to make a case for some interpretation or another.

In other words, pretend you’re a lawyer trying to make a case that a piece is this or that (“Pride and Prejudice is not just a romance, but a critique of women’s economic status in Regency England”). Or think of yourself as a detective uncovering certain aspects of the text that others might not notice (“Mansfield Park suffers from Austen’s own ambivalence about vitality vs. propriety”). Instead of forensically investigating a crime scene for clues to the perpetrator, you’re forensically examining a text looking for clues to what it means, why it matters, or why it was perpetrated written.

Really at a loss? Try reader response. Just relate aspects of the piece to your own life or beliefs in whatever way you want. The nice thing about it is that you can’t be wrong. You may not be particularly right, either — and personally I tend to bar my students from this one because it’s just too easy to bullshit and I’m trying to get them ready for higher-level courses.

Anyway, I had the great fortune of actually taking a class in literary criticism with the wonderful Prof. John Sitter at UMass, so by the end of that I was at least dimly aware of what was possible. Years later, in an effort to explain all the major options for my students without spending a whole semester on it, I came up with the attached downloadable quick guide to the most common critical approaches. You are welcome to use it or share it in your own classroom or studies, assuming you’re not an educational publisher who’s planning to make some moola with it. Just copy it as-is, please.

Ways to analyze a literary work

This is just an image -- download the PDF above if you want to print this at high resolution.

This is just an image — download the PDF above if you want to print this at high resolution.

Hope it helps. And if it does, I’d love to hear about it.

*Oh, and about that idea that authors are hiding things on purpose…

I suppose some authors might quietly plot to stuff things into their books to torture future English students, but generally speaking I think authors are more interested in 1) making whatever point they’re trying to make, and 2) selling books.

If authors do use symbols, for example, it’s not out of a desire to be difficult, but because things generally considered “symbols” tend to crop up unconsciously as they write. Or, they might use symbolic elements very deliberately, but only because they are hoping it will help you “get” whatever point they’re trying to make.

Contookut River in Peterborough, NH

Contookut River in Peterborough, NH

For example, you could do a whole literary analysis of the symbolic role of water in my first book, The Awful Mess. Was I thinking about this possibility while I wrote it? Hell, no.

I knew I wanted the river at the beginning to be going the ‘wrong’ way, and, yes, I knew those two characters in the first scene were going to head the wrong way, too. But mostly I’d just always thought the Contookut River in Peterborough, New Hampshire was kind of charmingly funky that way. (It flows north, which I hadn’t realized some rivers do before I moved there.) Was that a symbolic connection? Yeah, maybe, vaguely, but it was more to do with exactly where I had first imagined that scene taking place.

Not until after I’d gotten quite a ways into the manuscript did I realize that water sure was popping up a lot. And water is sometimes used as a metaphor for sexuality … and life … and rebirth, as in baptism. And so, yes, once I saw it was there I did play with it a bit, and that’s even how I found my ending. I even got the point that I wished somebody hadn’t already used the title A River Runs Through It. But did I plan it that way from the beginning? Nope. Sadly, I’m not that clever. (My original idea had nothing to do with water as metaphor. It had to do with an arcane principle of web design that nobody knows as metaphor. FAIL!)

Anyway, at least I know I don’t need to worry about The Awful Mess ever being taught in high schools. There’s far too much sex!

Quick reminder

At the end of the month, a random member of my subscriber list gets a gift card. So if you were thinking of signing up and haven’t yet, now’s a good time. Though if you win, it will be a bit like the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to get the Sunday paper out of your snow blower

I’m interrupting the novelist stuff to share a practical tip today, because I couldn’t find the answer on Google myself. So I called the guy who tunes up my two-stage snow blower, and he told me what to do, because he knew today was a rare break in the frigid temps and he couldn’t get here. (Thank you, Lawnmower Guy!)

Has this ever happened to you?

newspaper-jammed snow blower auger

The Sunday Times Union and its wrapper, intimately involved with my snow blower’s auger.

First, a disclaimer: I am not a licensed expert and make no claims to be. This just worked for me. Do any of this at your own risk.

  1. It has just snowed, which means it’s cold and wet out, so put the clogged snow blower away and finish your job another way.
  2. Unless you have a heated garage at your disposal (lucky you), wait for the next warm, dry day (20’s and sunny counts as warm where I live) and put your snow blower in the sun (and in a dry spot) to thaw a bit.
  3. Make sure it is OFF. Completely off. And has been for a while. If you want to be extra sure, take the wire off the spark plug. I couldn’t find my spark plug, but I was assured that the auger wasn’t going to suddenly come to life and take my hand off as long as the machine was indeed fully off. (If it’s an electric machine, obviously UNPLUG it.)
  4. If you can, lift the machine off the ground a bit. I used two bricks to support mine. If there isn’t any gas in it, you can turn it on its side. But of course there is gas in it — you were using it before you ran over the paper, weren’t you?
  5. If it’s not thawing fast enough, set a hair blow dryer on low and aim it at the clog. (Obviously, don’t do this if there is any question of the dryer or its cord getting WET.)
  6. Just start peeling away layer by layer, piece by piece.
  7. After about five or ten minutes of this, the remains of even the thickest Sunday paper will drop out with in a big, satisfying clump. You might even be able to rescue a few coupons, if you’re into that. (I’m not that into that.)
    Snow blower cleaned out.

    Yay, all done! It took me less than ten minutes. Note the purple blow dryer at the bottom, and the sheer pins in the middle of each of the blades’ axles. Also, note the bricks.

     

  8. Check to see if the shear pins have broken. If so, replace them, because that side of the machine will not function without them. (Everyone who owns a machine should know how to do this — keep spare shear pins on hand. Usually there’s a compartment on your snow blower to hold these for you.)
  9. Start it up again, run it enough to make sure it’s okay, and then put it away.
  10. Hoorah! You’re ready for the next snow. Which in my case is tomorrow.

From now on, I’ll do the front walk by hand, at least until I’m certain there’s not a newspaper under the snow.

By the way, the other great hazard for snow blowers, according to my lawnmower guy, is rubber doormats. I’ve also seen garden hoses mentioned online. So it might be worth making sure both of those are safely out of range before the snow starts.

The other big tip? Don’t let old gas sit in your snow blower for too long. Use fresh gas you’ve treated with STA-BIL® Fuel Stabilizer (or some other additive) to run it. (Put old gas in your car — it can handle it.) STA-BIL® and others like it keep the ethanol that is now part of our gasoline supply from doing bad things to your small engine, especially in the off-season. This is true of lawn mowers as well.

Yes, someday we’ll need those again. There will be grass. Have faith!