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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Review

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the 2018 sequel to the 2016’s film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The second attempt at expanding the Harry Potter’s universe by J.K. Rowling has been received with mix sentiment at best. Much has been said about the multimillionaire author’s casting choices and changes to the Harry Potter lore, but beyond all that, Crimes of Grindelwald suffers from something far worse: missed potential.

Director David Yates and writer J.K. Rowling, who have worked together since Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix, reunite to continue Newt Scamander’s story. Along with returning actors such as Eddie Redmayne (Newt), Ezra Miller (Credence), Dan Fogler (Jacob) and Katherine Waterson (Tina), Crimes of Grindelwald officially introduces Johnny Deep as the titular villain and Jude Law as a younger, dashier version of Albus Dumbledore.

The film opens with a spectacular magical prison break that promises a far different movie, then briefly returns to Newt. Six months after his New York adventure, the wizard has been banned from traveling internationally but is offered the opportunity to regain his status if he agrees to hunt down Credence. He categorically refuses to do so, instead deciding to take upon Dumbledore’s mission – to help Credence instead of killing him.

But this is merely one of the many plots we are expected to follow. An intricate web of motivations and politics, Crimes of Grindelwald attempts to explain itself between beast-filled action scenes and long-drawn expositional dialogue. With four main characters, five secondary characters, and a small group of villains, the script pulls and pushes us around from one set piece to another, assuming the viewer will care enough to pay attention.

Sometimes James Newton Howard’s score will become whimsical, announcing a pause to the dreary events and the start of funny little sequences where the titular fantastical beasts decide to pop up and make themselves known. But those are short and often too disconnected from everything else. They feel like a desperate attempt at connecting the radically different promises the series has made to its audience.

Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them also suffered from a lack of focus, but at least it had its heart in the right place, taking its time to introduce the main four characters and establish their dynamics. Unfortunately, the sequel keeps them separated for a good portion of the movie and they disappear among everything else. No matter what was happening, Harry, Ron, and Hermione faced it together, coming up with plans and sharing information. Unlike them, Newt, Tina, Jacob, and Queenie have the tendency to keep things to themselves and wander off alone.

The real frustration is that Crimes of Grindelwald has exciting and compelling stories to tell. One of the new side characters, Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), has a powerful backstory, yet in a movie stuffed with so many subplots to the point there is no clear main plot, she spends most of the time standing around. The same can be said for Credence and Nagini (Claudia Kim), Voldemort’s future snake pet, who are together in most scenes but rarely interact in a meaningful way.

The problem with a mystery story that takes this long to unravel itself is that while the ending might make sense, the journey to get that is cluttered with red herrings and dead ends. It seems J.K. Rowling has forgotten that what made her previous series magical had nothing to do with secret siblings and blood packs, and everything to do with small victories and character moments. Whatever mystery Harry had to face, he and his friends would be the focus. The political machinations and betrayals of adults remained in the background, merely supporting the main trio’s journey.

This time J.K. Rowling is less concerned with character growth and more determined to tell Dumbledore’s backstory through the eyes of poor Newt, whose shy and introverted nature might’ve offered a different kind of journey, challenging Hollywood’s formulaic heroes, but in this particular plot feels lost and reactive. With three more movies planned, it’s hard to dismiss the series altogether, yet one must wonder if there’s enough interest to keep audiences coming back. Will the increasingly convoluted plots scare away casual viewers? And will Rowling’s constant changes to her own lore turn her fans against the series? It’s too early to tell, but perhaps too late to fix it.

Crimes of Grindelwald give us thousands of pieces of different puzzles, and as such, we never have the chance to see the entire picture. Too concerned to move its pawns to the right places at the right times, the movie never stops to tell us why we should care.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Film Review

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a 2016 comedy adventure film written and directed by Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do in the Shadows), starring Sam Neill and Julian Dennison (Deadpool 2). A light-hearted tale with an edge, the film showcases Waititi’s ability to balance dark humor and the fantastical with broader themes, such as coming of age, grieving, family, and abandonment issues. Surprisingly heartfelt, the film also offers plenty of action.

Brought to a remote farm by Paula, a child-services worker, Ricky is a troubled foster kid with a history of bad behavior. This new family, an eccentric outdoorsy couple, is his last shot before being sent to juvenile lockup. Despite his initial misgivings and a botched attempt at escaping, Ricky quickly warms up to Auntie Bella (Rima Te Wiata). Her husband Hector (Neil) however, does his best to keep the boy at arm’s length. Things seem to be going well, but then Bella dies suddenly, leaving both Ricky and Hector feeling adrift. Desperate not to go to juvenile prison, Ricky strikes out alone into the bush to avoid child-services. Begrudgingly, Uncle Hector goes after him and, thanks to a series of misunderstands, a national manhunt for them begins.

The movie is a canopy of heartfelt connections and off-putting jokes, not leaning too much on either element, but just enough that the journey is an interesting one. The relationship between Hector and Ricky never feels overdone, and while neither character grows or changes over the course the story, they certainly soften enough to each other in a way that feels entirely natural. When placed next to a maelstrom of crazy and wacky characters, they become the much-needed straight-man. This doesn’t mean they are too serious themselves as even Hector occasionally joins in on the fun.

Waititi’s referential humor is on full display, with nods to The Lord of the Rings, Pixar’s Up, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, classic 80’s New Zealand manhunt movies, Shane Black, gangster and rap culture. This pastiche of influences is mirrored on his directional choices of camera and soundtrack, as he commits entirely to music montages and lightning-fast cuts that highlight his comedy. These techniques are a departure from his other work but signal his desire to explore different styles and not to limit himself as a director.

Similar to his previous work on What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi blends the outrageous with a grounding reality, but unlike the supernatural society in his vampire comedy, the bush and the country of New Zealand don’t offer the same leeway for wackiness, which results in a slightly more schizophrenic tone that could put off part of the audience. In one moment, Paula and the police offer chasing Ricky and Hector arrive on a tank. In another, a literal Bushman appears out of nowhere to facilitate the movie’s third act. While still very much amusing and exciting, some of it pushes the limit of credulity a bit too far. When reality comes knocking in, the stark contrast might feel sudden to the average viewer. But those more familiar with Waititi’s influences might appreciate his use of the tropes to the betterment of his characters and humor.

Overall, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a fun, engaging narrative that contains Waititi’s usual off-putting humor and brings out an excellent performance from both Neil and Dennison. A must-see for any fan of Waititi’s work as well anyone interested in a different kind of journey into the beautiful wilderness of New Zealand. But a fair warning for those who care about animals: this movie is surprising cruel to wild boars, and it does contain a dog’s death.

Six Badass Female Characters in Horror and Thriller Movies

The horror and thriller genre have long been seen as the worst offenders of female victimhood exploitation, with its female characters screaming at the screen as they are dragged off into the dark. But since the 70’s, these victims began to fight back. The era of the “Final Girl” was born and after that, its evolution continued.

What is a good, strong female character is always shifting, as feminist theory and its opponents struggle in a never-ending battle for this elusive creature. My list of badass female characters might not be your list, but I tried to be fair to these characters. My requirement is simple: in the context of their movie, are they badass? 

If the character has shown intelligence, bravery, or acted logically with the information given to them, they are probably badass. With one caveat: the movie does not sexualize their suffering, punish them for their sexuality (or “femininity”), nor objectify them with the camera. A character can be the final girl and kill the villain, but if the movie doesn’t respect them as characters, they are not good representation and, thus, are not badass to me.

With that in mind, my chosen six badass female characters are:

Clarice (The Silence of the Lambs)

(Jodie Foster as FBI trainee Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991)

The movie spends a considerable amount showing us Clarice in vulnerable positions. She’s tasked with dealing with the manipulative Lecter, has semen throw in her face, and needs to reveal extremely personal information to a cannibal in order to continue the case and save a girl’s life. Despite this, Clarice never falters in her mission. She meets all her challenges with determination and uses her intelligence to retrieve clues from Lecter as well to find Buffalo Bill. What makes Clarice such a great character is that her small appearance and gender are used as a source of tension, but not of titillation. She comes off as delicate, yet because of this, her victories are all that more impressive. She refuses to bow down to the expectation of fragility, which makes her truly badass.


Maddie (Hush)

(Hush, 2016)

Maddie is another character whose apparent fragility (being deaf) is used as a tool to build tension, but in a twist, Maddie quickly proves that assumption to be grossly wrong. Even the villain underestimates her, and for this, he pays. Smart, resourceful, brave, and above all, human, she fights for her survival until the very end. The movie pulls no punches: Maddie is hurt multiple times and fails at escaping and overcoming her attacker. Yet, she doesn’t give up the fight. Using all tool available to her (including her writer’s mind and an alarm for the deaf), she survives. Despite not having a lot of dialogue, Maddie’s personality is revealed via her actions. Witty and smart, we root for her since the start.


Ripley (Alien)


(Ripley, Alien. Saving cats since 1979)

Any list of badass characters without Ripley would be a failure. Ripley represents a major step for female characters in Hollywood. Originally written as a male, Ripley challenged a lot of stereotypes of the time (some which continue to this day). Her gender is only one aspect of her character, and she’s not defined by the usual female roles (damsel in distress, eye candy, and monster bait). We see her clash with others, we see her struggle, we see her tired and scared. Ripley proved a female protagonist could be successful in the box office and with audiences. And it’s almost criminal that she’s still so alone in the pantheon of kickass heroines.


Lorraine (The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2)


(Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring 2)

With great power comes great responsibility, and that isn’t just for Marvel superheroes. Lorraine is, in some ways, a superhero herself. Her supernatural abilities are a great toll on her, yet, she uses them for good again and again. Despite being a target of danger, Lorraine and her husband work to help people and quell murderous spirits. While she’s scared of the evil she attracts, she always tries to comfort others and make them feel safe. She and her husband make a great couple, always trusting and supportive of each other (a rarity in horror movies). Her empathy and courage are why she’s a hero and a badass one.


Erin (You’re Next)

(You’re Next, 2011)

The outsider to the machinations and betrayals of a rich family, Erin has no inclination to become another victim of the bloodthirsty assassins that invade her boyfriend’s house. Revealing herself to be more than the girlfriend character, she transforms the house into a bobby-trapped nightmare and manages to rack the biggest kill count of all the characters in this list. A true heroine of the slasher genre, her actions end in blood and gory bits. Among a cast of annoying and unlikeable characters, Erin shines brightly as the daughter of a survivalist who’s ready to do what it takes to make to the end of the movie.


Casey (Split)

(Split, 2016)

Kidnapped by a man with a multiple personality disorder, Casey has to learn to navigate his psyche in order to find a way to survive and escape her captivity. She keeps her cool and manages to hold off the “Beast” as long as possible, never surrendering to fear. Around her, a cast of other victimized female characters also display smarts and bravery but fall short of the supernatural threat they face. While “spared” by the Beast in the end, Casey would have not stopped fighting even against immeasurable odds. Her history of abuse isn’t glorified; instead it adds another layer to her character.

Deadly Hearts is out! My new book is available for purchase right now.

Deadly Hearts - A Post-Apocalyptic Romance Novel

My new book is out on Amazon. Kindle and Paperback editions are up!

DEADLY HEARTS is a Post-Apocalyptic Romance novel taking place in a fictional South American country. It tells the story of Isabel, a young woman trying to keep her infected mother safe after a deadly outbreak throws her home into chaos. The novel has plenty of romance, action, and zombies. If liked Lily, you’ll definitely enjoy reading Isabel’s story.

You can buy DEADLY HEARTS right now clicking here.

Here’s the synopsis:

After a deadly disease devastates her country and robs her of everything she has ever known, Isabel cares only about one thing: keeping her infected mother safe. When rumors of a cure reach her desperate ears, Isabel will do anything to have it. Even if that means getting into bed with Diego, the charming leader of the Vargas drug cartel. Figuratively speaking, that is.

Once her initial plan of stealing the cure from his grasp fails, she sees herself at the mercy of one of the most powerful men left in their country. But instead of killing her, an intrigued Diego proposes a dangerous deal. One she cannot refuse.

She will take him to the quarantined island of Bonita, a place that still haunts her nightmares, or she’ll lose her only chance of having the cure.

With no other choice, Isabel embarks on a journey deep into the jungle with Diego—a man she doesn’t trust but who holds the key to her salvation. And maybe, if she lets him, her heart.

The Force Awakens vs A New Hope – How similar are they really?

Star Wars The Force Awakens Review

The Force Awakens is fantastic. It’s a fun, funny, cute, emotional, thrilling movie that encapsulated everything Star Wars should be about. I enjoyed a lot and cannot wait for episode VIII. But it has been going around that it’s too similar to A New Hope and not original enough.

Now, the first time I left the theater, I had this same impression. Starkiller base, the hologram of an evil Emperor, a masked villain, the cantina scene, the desert, ice, and forest planets… But by the second viewing, I focused a lot more on what on what was new and was able to enjoy it even more.

Of course, it’s undeniable that The Force Awakens references many things of the original trilogy, but does it outright copies A New Hope? And, in the end, does it really matter if it does?

Well, it seems that the answer is: yes and… no. Let’s analyze both movies and see where they are similar.

SPOILERS IN CASE YOU STILL HAVEN’T SEEN BOTH MOVIES… (Why, though? See them, please.)

The Revenge of the Three Act Structure

Starkiller Base and the Death Star

A New Hope has a very clear, straightforward plot. A boy is called on a journey, refuses it but has no choice but to face the dangers ahead to become a hero. He loses his mentor along the way but overcomes many challenges, learning something about himself and his abilities to triumph.

This translates into three fundamental acts. Act 1: Introduction of the world, the characters, and the dangers they will face. Act2: The first challenge and lowest point for the hero (mentor dies, or the hero is defeated). Act 3: Rise and triumph against Evil.

Bam. That’s the plot of A New Hope. It’s also the plot of The Force Awakens. Rey is called on a journey, refuses, but has no choice but to leave home and become a hero. In middle point of the plot, she loses (is captured), then learns about herself and her powers to triumph against the villain.

Like A New Hope, The Force Awakens relies heavily on the Three-Act Structure and the Hero’s Journey.

But there’s more…

The Attack of the References

BB-8 and R2D2

I mentioned earlier that The Force Awakens references a lot of elements from the Original Trilogy. These are not wink-wink moments at the audience, and apart from the obvious references (Kylo’s mask, BB-8 being the new R2D2, the hologram chess game, Luke’s training sphere, etc.), they are completely integrated into the plot. Which means if you take out them, the whole house of cards falls…

Not only the structure is similar, but the plot beats follow A New Hope’s timeline almost perfectly. I saw the older movie (the Special Edition sadly), took a few notes and then went back to see The Force Awakens. It’s surprising how close the timing is.

For example, the first 10 minutes are almost the same. The players change, and the scenes are sleek and fast-paced, but it’s the same plot: Imperials/First Order attack the Rebellion/Resistance and capture Leia/Poe, Vader/Kylo has a short antagonizing conversation with Leia/Poe and the droids escape to desert planets.

Kylo and Vader arrive in style

Thankfully instead of the slow-moving scene of the Jawas capturing R2D2, we get Finn and Poe escaping to Jakku.

But Rey and Luke’s introductions are next, and the principle is the same here too. Rey is an orphan, but she also longs for something she doesn’t have, like Luke. Her finding BB-8 is the trigger for the start of her journey, just like Luke meeting R2D2 and C3PO was for him.

Han and Chewie appear at the 40-45 mark in both movies. The demonstrations of the power of the Death Star and the Starkiller base happen at the one-hour mark, and the attack on both bases occur at the 1h50 mark as well. Probably done on purpose.

At the 1h30-1h40 mark Ben, Luke’s mentor, dies and so does Rey’s and Finn’s mentor.

Two-hours in, both Rey and Luke win against their opponents. The bases are destroyed with a single decisive shot.

Even when some things don’t align perfectly, they still mirror a lot of scenes in A New Hope. For example, Rey and Finn are forced to leave the planet in the Millenium Falcon under an attack of the First Order, so do Luke, Han, and Ben. The escape itself is similar to the Death Star escape, with plenty of references and very similar camera shots. Finn and Poe reunite in a scene very similar to how Luke and Biggs reunite. Kylo feels like he turns violent at any second and his subordinates/fellow Imperials don’t like him/are afraid of him, much like Darth Vader.

Bros Poe, Finn, Luke and Biggs

Not everything is the same, of course. There’s no rescue operation akin to Leia’s (Poe escapes with Finn instead). Rey’s kidnapping is not the main focus of the Resistance’s plan, and she frees herself. Rey and Finn are not directly responsible for Starkiller base being destroyed. No trash compactor scene. But are these differences enough?

A New Hope for the Hero’s Journey

Okay, so clearly The Force Awakens is very, very similar to A New Hope. It continually borrows from the Original Trilogy: plot points, scenes, and even some characters. But why I still enjoyed the movie? And why I don’t think it matters?

Well, for starters, many, many stories are constructed with the three-act structure–it’s a tried and true way of creating plots, but just it’s a tool. If you simplify the plots of 80% of all movies, you will arrive at the same plot structure. Does that mean none of them are original? Of course not.

The use of the Hero’s Journey is not a terribly original idea, but this move uses it in a way that’s new and refreshing.

Rey and Luke, they hate sand!

Luke’s journey is as straightforward as it can get; it follows the template very closely. In no moment do we wonder who’s the main character of A New Hope. We know it’s Luke. Han and Leia only factor in the plot 60 minutes in and even then their contributions are not as big as Luke’s.

But The Force Awakens doesn’t do that. It introduces us to Finn, and it builds him quickly and easily as someone to root for. Finn is a unique character with a unique background. He doesn’t fit any of the Original Trilogy characters in role or personality. He takes the reins of his life and escapes the First Order. So the audience concludes: this is his hero journey.

And the audience also assumes there’s no room for anyone else. But here’s the great thing: there is! Rey comes in, and she also is on her personal hero’s journey. In this century, in this age of cinema, there’s room for everyone.

Not only that but unlike Luke, Rey doesn’t reveal “herself” as the hero for the audience until she realizes that, in fact, she has a bigger role to play. We find out with her that she’s the one who has to face against Kylo, that she’s the one with the Force, not Finn. This is a nice twist on the usual Hero’s Journey structure, and it works beautifully.

Rey’s motivation is also the opposite of Luke. She doesn’t want to leave her planet and seek adventure. She’s waiting for her family and leaving Jakku is emotionally conflicting for her. Finn wants to escape the First Order above everything else–until Rey is captured. His character arc is extremely personal and not a mirror for Luke’s or even Han’s.

Meanwhile, Han is also on a journey to reclaim something he lost. He also has an emotional arc to fulfill here.

It doesn’t stop with the heroes either. Kylo is on a journey of self-discovery just as Finn and Rey, he has a character arc and conflicting emotions, unlike Darth Vader. He’s not done baking, as Buffy would say, and that’s very rewarding for a character. (Not for a villain, but he has two movies to get there).

Everyone gets conflicting emotions and arcs. This is not like A New Hope at all. Apart from Luke, only Han “changed” in A New Hope (in a span of a few minutes), but that was nothing compared to The Force Awakens’ ensemble cast.

While The Force Awakens references a lot of elements from A New Hope, in the end, when it matters the movie offers us new, compelling characters and emotional arcs.

The Popular Culture Strikes Back

I don’t blame The Force Awakens for using the same formula that made A New Hope so appealing and successful– the last true Star Wars movie was 30 years ago, and while the original trilogy is still very alive in Star Wars fan minds, 30 years was a long time ago, in a far, far away galaxy. After George Lucas tried to do something different and was hated for it, it was time to get back to the roots of the franchise and introduce a true Star Wars movie to a new generation.

And the result is a movie that is everything a Star War movie should be about but faster and more inclusive. Is it a cinema work of art? Is it a fantastic achievement of direction and storytelling? No. This is not Fury Road; this is not Inception, or The Hateful Eight. And it isn’t supposed to be.

It’s an homage; it’s a fast-paced celebration of the old Star Wars that sometimes doesn’t stop enough for us to enjoy the scenery, but it has a new and bright beating heart under that A New Hope ribcage. And wasn’t that what everyone wanted? Wasn’t that what the franchise needed? For me, that’s a huge yes.

 

Those Who Remain: Book Three is out

Those Who Remain Book 3 is out!

Those Who Remain: Book Three is out!

You can now buy it on Amazon or read for free with Kindle Unlimited.

It has been a long journey, but it’s done! The trilogy is complete. Thank you everyone who read these books and supported them. Thank you for leaving reviews, for adding it to your Goodreads, for subscribing to my newsletter, or for simply coming here to read this!

Book 3 is the longest of the trilogy, and has some mysteries for you to resolve, so keep an eye for clues and maybe you can guess right the answers. I’m very proud of the book, and I hope everyone will enjoy it.

And if you do, why not post a review on Amazon? Your feedback is greatly appreciated it, and even a short review can help the book sell better and reach new readers!

Here’s the book’s description:

Those Who Remain Book 3 is out!Paranoia and isolation can be dangerous. Far from their homes, the survivors must adapt and accept the consequences of their past mistakes to stay alive. While Laurie struggles to find her place in this new world, be it alone or under Jacob Hunter’s wing, Lily and Maria embark on a journey to save the world that might end in tragedy.

And what of Danny? Not even he knows.

Those Who Remain – Book 3 is the last book in the Those Who Remain trilogy.

 

 

And if you are hungry for more zombie novels, don’t worry! I’ll be back soon with a new book and more zombies. If you want to read free previews of my future books or read the books before anyone else as a beta, you can subscribe to my newsletter! It’s easy, quick, and my newsletters are sent only when I have something important to tell you.

If you’re interested, click here and fill the form.

Until Dawn Review – Video Games and Horror

Until Dawn Review PS4 game

Until Dawn Review – Video Games and Horror

So, I’m playing Until Dawn for the PS4 since its release and I think it’s the perfect game for horror movie fans, more than any other scary game out there (Five Nights at Freddy’s or even Amnesia or Outlast). It also got me thinking about how the Horror genre fits so well with interactive storytelling games (the shiny new version of adventure and exploring games of old).

Heavy-Rain_PS3_US

The first major game that got media attention of this weird genre was Heavy Rain (that I remember… Although I think the Silent Hill series paved the way for games with focus on physiological horror and less combat). Heavy Rain was a downer mystery, very moody, where the player would make dialog choices, and all action were QTEs (Quick-Timed Events). It had multiple POV characters (unsurprisingly something I loved!), and most of them could die for good, which affected the ending.

While the mechanics of the game and the story itself worked for me (it had its detractors back then and I agree the move controls sucked), what really made the game standout, in my opinion, was the feeling of changing the outcome and facing tough decisions without an easy way out. It made the game much more engaging and the story compelling (right until the somewhat lackluster conclusion, depending if you managed to solve the mystery or not).

Heavy Rain Screetshot

Back then, Heavy Rain was an odd game that left its mark, but didn’t inspire an explosion of copycats. Maybe it was technically too expensive and difficult to make for others to copy or maybe it didn’t enjoy a huge commercial success. LA Noire and Beyond: Two Souls came after, but LA Noire tried too hard to be an open world game (or appear to be) and Beyond, made by the same people as Heavy Rain, failed to deliver a riveting story or characters. Both these games tried to add conventional mechanics (shooting, stealth, side missions and driving) perhaps to lure gamers who didn’t consider Heavy Rain a “game”. Either way, response to these games were mixed because they went too far into the gaming spectrum of the genre, instead of focusing on story and what mechanics would improve and deepen player interaction with it.

The lesson here is that the gaming aspects should serve the needs of the story and its themes, not the other way around. A perfect example would be Life is Strange. This quirky game about a time-controlling college girl is similar to classic adventures games and older Telltale games (like the Back to the Future series) with dialogue trees and actual puzzles (that use time as a mechanic). There’s no tension, no nerve wrecking QTEs, just exploration, and replay. It fits its characters, its art style, its soundtrack. It fits the story it wants to tell. Thanks to all of this, it has been a success in the media.

Life Is Strange™_20150202020852

Life is Strange is a charming game, but nothing like Heavy Rain. And it shouldn’t be. One is a tale of growing up, stumbling around trying to fix your mistakes, the importance of friendship and realizing how dark the adult world can be, the other is a mystery starring people knee-deep into depression, loneliness, and addiction with little hope of the future.

Which brings me back to Until Dawn and why it’s a real spiritual sequel to Heavy Rain, more than Beyond: Two Souls. It not only proves this weird, still-struggling-to-define-itself genre is here to stay, it also shows why Horror works so well with this style of game.

Until-Dawn™_20150818172001-620x349

Until Dawn, in essence, is an interactive horror story that sometimes is a movie, other times is a game, and only because of that mix that the game becomes great.

As a game, it would be frustrating and lackluster. Too much time spent on cut-scenes. Linear paths, very little exploration. Endless, unfair QTEs and weird controls are a big no-no for regular games. But since it’s a movie too, the cutscenes are expected and rewarding. Exploration is limited but serves the story needs. And QTEs make sense: people are terrified, weak, tired, confused. These characters are not Drake’s or Lara Croft’s. Not the indestructible hero, supplied with an endless supply of health and ammo. Of course QTEs are quick and decisions aren’t well-planned. The mechanics fit the limitations expected from horror movies.

Until-Dawn™_20150818173658-620x349

As a movie, it would be extremely predictable: a group of teens go on a trip in an isolated mountain, pull a prank that ends in two of their friends disappearing into the woods. One year later, they all go back to the same place. All characters fit a certain horror trope (the nerd, the sexy girl, the bitch, the innocent, etc.) and predictably, bad things start to happen. And then? It’s a game again. You know that jerk jock? Hey, he can be cool/romantic if you want him to. Don’t like a character? Well, maybe just let him/her die then! That moment when someone strays from the group? You get to stop the dummy from going alone into the dark!

Until-Dawn™_20150819155927-620x349

Guess what choice I would pick?

You grow attached to certain characters because YOU are the one responsible for their survival, not the director of the movie or the scriptwriter. Nope. If someone does something stupid, it’s because YOU made them do it. If they fall while running, that’s your fault. We’re so used to scream at the screen for a character look behind them, groan when they don’t, and then hope the dumb idiot dies, it’s great to have those mistakes be on our shoulders. It’s actually the perfect level of interaction for a horror fan. It’s everything we wanted (go inside the movie and shake that person), but the cost is that we realize we aren’t that smart/ready/prepared. Are the QTEs and choices unfair? Too fast? Unpredictable? Yep. And that’s the point. A split of a second decision can lead to a character’s death. A choice made back at the start of the game can ruin a character’s chance of survival. That’s awesome and completely fitting: it provides tension, rewards replays and gives weight and consequences to our choices.

Another cool thing is that the character’s knowledge of the plot is directly connected to the player’s exploration. We need to collect enough clues to make sense of things, and if we do that, THEY do it too. Sure, you can guess most of the plot points pretty quickly (again, it’s a predictable plot for a horror movie), but so can the characters. A little later, yes, but I think someone less into horror might find things at the same pace as the characters. This means characters are not left in the dark just to create fake tension or force them into danger.

Oh, and yeah, your fears are reflected in the scares! How cool is that?

Until Dawn PS4 game

Meet your shrink… I’m sure he’s a nice guy who won’t use your fears against you…!

Also totems! Another great mechanic that fits the themes explored and… Damn. Okay. I really, really like this game.

The art, soundtrack, the direction of the scenes, it’s just the perfect mix between game and movie. The framing is very movie-like and very purposefully not only for ambiance and tension but also for gaming purposes. Places you should go are saturated, everything else dark. Light is used in a cinematic way that makes everything scary and provides enough contrast so you can see collectibles.

until-dawn-shed-800x440

You can see how much horror movie tropes and style influenced this game and it just works. I definitely recommend this game for horror fans. Yes, it relies on typical horror tropes, but the interactive aspects make them feel fresh. Just a warning: a lot of jump scares! But they’re a fun.

If you are interested in this game you can buy it on Amazon:

The Walking Dead Season 5 – Best and worst moments so far

The Walking Dead Season 5

Best and worst moments of the tv series so far

I was going to do a recap after each episode aired but since I’m too slow I decided to do a list of what I liked and didn’t like about this season so far. The series has evolved and matured so much these last seasons, it’s easy to understand why it has grown on numbers and critical praise. I think the biggest thing I noticed is that the weakest plots and characters from earlier seasons weren’t tossed aside or forgotten, but instead developed in a logical way and turned into the best part of the season. Rick’s transformation, for example. Anyway, let’s start the list!

BEWARE SPOILERS

WORST

TheWalkingDead_Season5_WorstMoments5

5. The priest tour of the walking dead world.

Look, I get it. He was isolated this whole time and wouldn’t believe Team Rick’s words. Fine. But at this point in the series, it’s hard to enjoy characters doing dumb things, even if I understand his logic and the theme the show wanted to explore with his character. The fact that he stepped on a nail of all things and brought a huge horde just so they would lose the church has a safe heaven (I’m thinking that’s why anyway) annoyed the hell out of me.

BUT the priest character himself, I like. It’s nice to have someone so openly afraid and “gentle”, it can bring a nice contrast to everybody else. He also isn’t like other “gentle” characters (like Hershel, farm Beth, and Tyreese). They all were touched by personal tragedy, but tragedy they had no control over. This guy made a bad choice by being a coward, and that was it. His is a moral tragedy, a tragedy of character. He may be stupid, but at least is a new stupid. Which is why this moment is not placed higher on the list.

4. Sasha and Tyreese wonder about grief loudly and constantly.

The grieving process has been explored enough, I think. Rick had his arc. Maggie, Beth, Carol, Daryl, even Tyreese had his. So Sasha’s didn’t work for me, it felt like the same story and nothing new to add. Its only purpose seemed to be justifying her mistake with Officer Bob. That’s the problem with having utter capable characters: you need to dumb them down for mistakes like that to happen. Yet, there were probably better ways for Bob to escape. The goal probably was to have Beth’s death impossible to stop (since it ties with one less hostage to trade) and have Rick run him over and make that “mistake”. Still, why? Why have them waste time talking about the obvious? Move on, Sasha! You and us barely knew Bob.

3. Michonne doesn’t do much.

Why? I miss Michonne. The scene where she slices zombies in the church was awesome, but apart from that she did nothing this season and I miss her! She, Rick and Carl had the best episode last season, and yet here she’s in the background while Beth, crazy pants army guy, and Sasha get more attention. I hope she will be used better during the rest of the season.

2. Boring new characters and Beth stuck in a hospital

TheWalkingDead_Season5_WorstMoments

Okay, so Beth isn’t the worst. She was the worst for the longest time, with her singing and suicide attempts. I didn’t like her. I still don’t care about her, but having a whole episode dedicated to her might’ve worked for me if it didn’t involve the dullest most obvious characters ever. The whole hospital stuff just had me roll my eyes. Oh, abuses of power! Oh, rape as a threat to a female character! Oh, crazy person is a leader! Whatever. I’ll try really hard so my book 3 plot isn’t as dull as this one. The only surprise was the doctor thinking only of his position and killing a patient. Now that’s a cool twist. Still, it took ages to get there. And Beth isn’t a compelling enough character for me to wait that long. It’s good that they finally decided to develop her character and, on paper, separating her from the group allowed her to show what she was capable of, but sadly the plot itself and the characters around her weren’t enough to justify the time wasted.

1. Beth’s death

I have so many reasons to roll my eyes at Beth’s death! It’s just so frustratingly staged. For example, why have the exchange inside the hospital instead of the parking lot? Would Rick really agree with that stupid plan? I mean, it places his team on the disadvantage (corners, doors, obstacles, the rest of the staff, etc). Why bring that guy with them? (Forgot his name, the Everybody Hate Chris actor). He’s injured, not good with a gun and they don’t know him that well. Makes no sense. Why cop lady wanted him anyway? Spite? She didn’t seem spiteful to me (then again, she didn’t seem like anything . Was she a master manipulator? An incompetent leader? Delusional? All of it? None of it? I don’t know).

Which, of course, brings to the culmination of bad choices that were written as a tragical unforeseen sequence of events (Carol forgetting to look at both sides of the street before crossing it, Sasha’s believing an idiotic story, Rick’s killing Bob, someone taking that kid back, Beth wanting to be a badass) but end up like forcing conflict for the sake of a theme/plot, instead of looking natural.

It’s too staged. Too neatly filled with bad decisions from characters that seemed above that stupidness. Even Beth’s bad aim with that scissor makes no sense. She has the surprise element on her side, she’s the one in control, so how come she doesn’t go for the neck?? You can argue she hates cop lady so much she would risk an open confrontation, but she spends all her time in the hospital trying to be sneaky about her actions! Still, I can try to excuse her actions by saying she was overconfident on her own skills or just an emotional wreck after all she went through. Attacking the cop lady was stupid, but human. The rest of the choices? Just plain stupid.

I’m not even sad about her death, but the scene itself is so avoidable, I got mad… I like the resolution at least, with the hospital staff going “eh, nobody liked the cop lady anyway”. Good for them, I didn’t like her either. Hopefully, Beth’s death won’t be just for the sake of Daryl’s “development” or whatever. Finger’s crossed!

BEST

5. Team Rick is super prepared and it still doesn’t work

Season 4 ended with Rick’s promise to us, the viewers, and a warning to the cannibals: they were messing with the wrong people. But grand proclamations often can turn out to be empty. Especially after the less-than-stellar Governor’s arc. Back then, we had a badass start and a great deal of tension, but it got bogged down with tries at diplomacy that were obviously doomed to fail. So, yes, I wasn’t really expecting Rick’s words to have any real action behind them. Turns out: I was wrong. And right. Season 5 started with a team focused on kicking ass and escaping, quickly catching up on exposition while showing their skills of container-weapon making (containers, turn out, are deadly… And so are belts apparently!). It’s all very concise and works beautifully visually to establish just how much the series has evolved: this is a show that won’t waste time.

And that’s why, when their preparations don’t work and Terminus’ folk take them away from the rest, it doesn’t negate their actions earlier: it just makes things even more tense. If even these people, these badasses, can be placed in a butcher’s line of doom and be seconds away from death, then the viewers have reason to fear this situation. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. Even knowing Glenn wouldn’t be killed so soon, the sheer velocity of the premiere promised something was going to happen, something big and soon.

They were good on that promise: we moved on from Terminus in a single episode and what a glorious episode that was!

4. Carol burns down Terminus like a Terminator while a baby is threatened and Tyreese is a badass

I thought it was a stroke of genius to have Tyreese, a man that clearly is stronger than Terminus Minion 3, be the one to face utter helplessness.

The cliche would have been Carol face that situation: the “mother” of the group who lost her only daughter willing to kill to protect another child while the big, strong man does the attack on an army of cannibals. Women are usually placed in small, tense action scenes where emotions are tested, while action heroes go do the big epic fights. Yet, TWD did just the opposite and it was better for it. Carol went and rescued everyone with a frown and a sniper rifle, while Tyreese had to struggle with what humanity had become.

This isn’t unexpected since Tyreese has been the “heart” of the show for awhile, someone unwilling to compromise his goodness even in the face of atrocities while Carol did just the opposite. Still, their differences were treated has bad decisions during season 4 (He’s too soft to kill, she’s too violent to be in a group). Here, they are their strengths: Tyreese decides to sacrifice himself over risking Judith’s life and succeeds in saving her while Carol ignores her humanity to end a clear threat to her group, saving them in the process. Even his inability to kill Minion 3 isn’t used as proof he’s wrong. The issue is, instead, used to separate him from Sasha. Right or wrong, that’s for the audience decide and discuss instead of the show beating that dead horse again.

3. Cannibals eat tainted Bob meat and meet their end at a church

Not only did Team Rick didn’t stay at Terminus for half the season, but the show decided to continue the cannibal storyline (as they should, cannibals are a meaty source of potential material after all) at the right pace, giving it enough airtime to be tense and entertaining and then finishing it up with a strong visual: bloodbath at a church. There’s really no sanctuary anymore, anywhere to anyone.

The goriness of the scene was uncomfortable for me (I was just like Tyreese!), but I didn’t see any indication that their brutality was viewed as positive. Again, the audience is left to form their own opinions. Was Rick badass in saying they “didn’t want to waste bullets” on the cannibals? Did they cross the line between doing what was necessary for survival or desire for justice to the enjoyment of the punishment? If they did, does one thing negate the other?

2. Rick’s quiet development

Okay, so this isn’t exactly a single moment, but over the course of the season I noticed Rick’s presence is subdued. Unlike season 2 and 3, Rick’s emotional state and moral struggles aren’t at the forefront of the story. His presence is constant, but he’s a fully formed character now and it’s the other characters around him that are changing/questioning their lives. This is awesome because, while I like Rick even at his worst, the show realizes that they have done their homework: Rick has come to terms with himself. As he found out about zombies, so did the audience. He’s our anchor and now, like us, he’s adjusted to the zombie life. Like the audience (or at least like the audience wishes to be), Rick is done wondering what’s right and what’s wrong. He’s firm and decisive, but not above listening to others. He’s ruthless but not unwilling to give chances. Just not second chances.

And this is all a result of four seasons of development that people could argue weren’t done well, but the showrunners didn’t ignore his history, they improved on it. The best thing? Nobody talks about it. Nobody comments on that. Season 2 we had his wife, Andrea and Dale to question out loud who he was and what he was willing to do. During season 3, it was Hershel’s turn to put into words what Rick was feeling or not. Like they wouldn’t trust the audience to get it. Well, not anymore. Rick doesn’t need to say anything, the group gets it. The audience gets it.

And yet… We think we got Rick figured out now, but do we? This is the first time the audience is distant from him. All his doubts and sorrows are internal. We might think we know him, but by being outside the spotlight he becomes unpredictable. We stop noticing what’s going on with him. This transforms Rick in a force of nature we can’t really predict: he’s the leader, but what’s on his mind? And will anyone notice? Do we really know what to expect? Was him shooting Officer Bob a surprise? Not really. But did he do it because he’s gone too far or because he thinks this is the best chance for rescuing Beth and Carol? We can only guess. And that’s awesome.

TheWalkingDead_Season5_Best1

1. Daryl and Carol’s road trip

I mean, really, was there any doubt this would be the best moment of the season so far? Yes, I like Daryl. I fangirl him. But apart from his Merle’s arc, Daryl hadn’t done anything interesting in a long time. He’s too quiet. His episode with Beth worked because she wasn’t. His storyline with the idiotic group last season was dull because he’s too low key. When a character is too good at what he does, you need to challenge them, and for a long time Daryl just went along with whatever was happening. He was reacting.

Until Carol showed up again. Be still my shipping heart!

Fact is, they have history and this episode was a culmination of that history and their time apart. They changed each other, but also changed by their circumstances while being separated. Carol’s journey and the price she had to pay for her choices go directly against Daryl own journey of finding hope again after the prison (and, arguably, Carol’s departure). So when they discuss the issue of what life means now, it doesn’t sound contrived or boring unlike Sasha and Tyreese’s discussions on dealing with grief. Why? Well, despite we being sad about Bob (maybe?) and knowing Tyreese’s own history with the girlfriend ( I don’t even remember her name. I just know she’s Mama Mcall on Teen Wolf), we didn’t really see Sasha and Tyreese’s relationship. We are told they are brother and sister, but since their introduction they spend more time separated than together. They share a background, but not history. There’s no true tension there.

Which is the exact opposite with Carol and Daryl. And they work out their emotional issues in beautiful quiet moments while being badass and participating in cool action scenes as well. That’s the kind of balance works best for The Walking Dead.

This episode had a buildup only shows with a greenlit next season can have, I think. Would the writers really risk delaying these character’s conversation that long or dedicating a whole episode for it if they were afraid of cancelation? I doubt it. So, I also have a meta reason to think this is the best moment overall. This is a show has the confidence and courage to wait. To do slow, but not dumb. It’s truly different from before and this episode is proof of that.

And that’s it! I’m looking forward to the rest of the season, let’s see if they can keep this level of quality!

Tips for Creating Good Ebook Covers

Tips for Creating Good Ebook Covers

When discussing ebooks and self-publishing, the topic of how important a good book cover is always come up eventually. “You need a good cover to sell”, “it needs to look professional” and “the cover has to tell the reader what your book is about” are a few common comments. Advice on what exactly is a good cover and how to make one is harder to find. Many authors suggest finding a designer and paying for a cover, or even using a pre-made one for less money.

And that’s perfectly good advice. As a designer by day (and writer by night), I can attest that working with design isn’t easy. There are many barriers to surpass to not only be technically able to do it (Learning Photoshop, Illustrator and such can be daunting), but also you need an “eye” for good design. The eye is almost a mythical thing in my profession. Some people think it’s something you’re born with it. I don’t believe in that, but I’m pretty sure being interested in design and art as early as possible will probably help a lot. Design, like most skills, is something we can learn and improve with experience. Years of experience.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a good judge of what works and what doesn’t after doing some research. You don’t need to be able to do something, to actually understand and analyze how it works. Even for authors that plan to pay for a custom or a pre-made cover, it’s important to have the knowledge to judge if the product you are going associate your book with is any good. So I decided to write this post to give a few tips and introduce simple design concepts for authors struggling with their covers. (This isn’t by any means a definitive guide. I’m not a teacher, and even half what I know I learned by my own. That, and the fact that I’m not a professional cover designer. I work mainly with food and drink brands).

1. Context and collecting the right references.

Before even thinking about a cover, you need to know your product and your market.

Products don’t exist without consumers. A product that has no consumer appeal or purpose won’t sell. The good news is that books have a market established. People already read books and want to buy them. The problem is: there is a lot of books out there and even more readers, so in order to be found is vital to have a clear and established vision for your product. If you don’t understand your own book, nobody else will.

a. Determine your genre and your audience.

The first thing you have to do is determine what is your major genre and in what sub-genres it fits (For example Romance/Historical Romance/Regency). Research what others are doing (especially traditional publishers) in terms of both story beats (how much romance can a sci-fi book have before it turns into an outright romance novel? Etc) and look for covers in those genres. Readers are used to certain genres and have expectations about them, and that includes the cover design.

Why this matters to your cover: by knowing what your book is about, what readers expect from your genre and what other authors are doing you will accumulate references. The true secret to design (the whole “eye” thing I mentioned earlier) is references, lots of it. To train your eye, you need be exposed to design. Truthfully, we are exposed to it every day already because we are a very visual society, but that doesn’t mean you are being exposed to the right kind of design. What works to sell chocolate, doesn’t work for medicine, for example. You are not going to see a chocolate bar that looks like a bottle of aspirin. You can’t expect a sweet YA romance to sell when it has a black cover with a picture of handcuffs. Context is key. Design, unlike art, is not about expressing whatever the artist wants, but about appealing to and communicating with a specific audience.

So while you browse your chosen genres notice the colors, pictures and fonts used in the covers. Save the ones that appeal to you in a folder for future reference, and try to understand why they appeal to you. What’s so visually pleasing about them? How do they make you feel and does that feeling fit with the genre? With horror cover, does it give you an unpleasant sensation? With steamy romance is there a magnetism to it? (More on that later).

b. Where do you plan to sell your book? How anyone will find your book?

Selling your books on Amazon is not the same thing as selling it in your local bookstore. Even digital stores are very different from each other. Maybe they don’t categorize books the same way, maybe they promote free books differently or just the overall layout of their website can be a factor in determining how consumers interact with it. Some have bigger thumbnails, others focus on price or title. Searching in one can lead only to titles, instead of covers, etc.

Why does this matter in terms of design? Well, size and proportion of a thumbnail compared to the regular cover is incredibly important for the overall composition. It determines how much room you have for the elements of your cover (title, subtitle, author name, series name and etc). If the first impression of your book is going to be a small thumbnail, it doesn’t matter how beautiful your huge cover is if the title isn’t readable in the thumbnail. Also knowing what size others are using will help you fit in and look more professional if you follow the most common proportions.

c. Look at covers of successful books in your category to build a gallery of references

This is very important. Now that you know where your book fits in the context of the book market, you need to know what good, successful authors are doing. Of course, a cover by itself doesn’t guarantee bestseller rankings, and it might be that these authors are doing other things (promotions, book tours, etc), but still, at the very least, their covers aren’t stopping people from buying it. So there’s something to learn from them. They might not fit with your taste, but remember: design isn’t about you, but your audience. Of course, you should be proud of your cover, but not necessarily because of how beautiful it is, but maybe because how great it works selling your book to others.

2. Analyzing and understanding your references

You built a gallery of covers you like and of bestselling books, what’s next? Well, now is the time to pick apart these covers and find out why they work. What’s so great about them? First we need to find common visual elements. Like photos, font styles, colors and the way they are all related and composed. Let’s say you wrote a Historical Romance during the Regency Era and will sell it as an eBook on Amazon, if you followed my tips, you’ll probably have a bunch of covers in a folder that look like these:
Example of covers

Of course, Amazon is a complex and dynamic store and you might not get the same results that I had while searching for “regency romance”, but just to give you an idea.

Okay, so what these have in common? At first glance, you must’ve noticed they are all about the same size, with the exception of the boxed set. 1:6 usually is the proportion. What else? In terms of images: Long dresses, couples embracing and looking at each other, simple backgrounds and some with sexy appeal (bare backs from the ladies, bare chests from the lords and a ripped bodice here and there). Now colors: we have a lot of different colors here, some darker than others, why is that? Well, clearly my search wasn’t specific enough: sweet romances got mixed with the more sexy ones. But that’s okay, because you probably did the same thing and ended up with a mix of covers that might not be related to your book, and that gives us an opportunity to develop our designer eye and spot what they have in common, how they are different and why.

For example, can you see why these:

covers_SUSAN

are not the same as these:covers_COUPLES

that are different from these:covers_DRESS

Let’s take a closer look at each row.

covers_SUSANRight away, Susan Mallery’s covers caught my eye simply because they didn’t belong with the others. Why don’t they belong? Mostly because of the colors: bright blue, yellow and purple mixed with pure white. The pictures are also obviously not historical since the couples are wearing modern clothing. Then we have the name of the author in a thin, plain and sans serif font (More about san serif vs serif here). So these books are romance, but they are not historical or during the Regency Era. What they do signal to me is every-day romance with a sweet touch, and they all seem to be part of a series/belong to the same brand/author. Here’s a breakdown of each element and how they work together to build the idea of romance:

1. Colors. Bright colors usually mean happiness, energy and the brighter, the more it pops compared to dull/dark ones. We also associate them with freshness and newer things, which moves away from the more historical/old-fashioned romance.

2. Images. By placing couples embracing/touching, the cover implies a novel that’s mainly about romantic relationships. Add to the fact that they are smiling, it implies a happy ending or a feel-good story. The touching is also almost innocent, without the sexy-charged touching from a few other covers in our gallery. This helps maintain the image that we are going to read a book without much sex or, at least, focused on other aspects of relationships.

3. The choice of font. The curvy font used to write part of the titles (“The secret wife” and etc) is more “melodic”, implying sweetness. The fact that it is used on only one or two words of the whole title gives these words more weight, draw our eyes more to them. “Mysterious”, “Girl/Dreams” and “Secret” are compelling terms that elaborate on the subject of the novel (A mysterious romance, a perfect girl, and a special secret). Finally, by choosing to use a san serif, plain and modern type for the author name, it clearly signals this is a writer that specializes in this type of story (modern-era romance).

4. The disposition of elements is consistent in all three covers, which establishes the idea of a series or the same brand. (Name of the author on top and bigger than anything, the title and photo sharing the same space, plus the block of color on top then dissolving into white below).

If we were looking for covers for modern-day romance instead of historical romance, this one would be a good example of what to do, especially if you plan to make your author name into a brand. Remember: is not about taste. You might not like the choice of photo or font, but it works.

covers_SUSAN_analysis

A quick analysis of the covers.


covers_COUPLES

Now these covers fall more into the historical romance, but the steamy type. Notice that not all of them are from the same author, but they still share a few things:

1. Choice of font. They all used calligraphic fonts with that old-fashioned style that implies “historical”, and when not hand-written, they have serif with still gives them some delicacy/older feel (Used to be all fonts had serif, so we associate with printed media).

2. Subject of the photos. Unlikely Susan Mallery covers, these don’t shy away from showing skin and provocative touching. Clearly these people aren’t going to hold hands on the beach all book. Dresses are long, but almost falling off, shirts are old-fashioned but barely there. The couples are all looking at each other which is another way to imply intimacy.

3. Duller and darker tones for the most part. Black and red are prominent, with shades of pink and purple. Darker tones have more weight and seriousness in them, while the red and pink suggest love/romance/passion. No bright yellows or purples here: we are talking about desire and maybe even secret love affairs with dangerous results.

They do have differences, mostly because of their approaches to branding. Vivienne Lorret’s covers use more soft colors (baby blue and yellow, both a bit washed out to suggest a historical feel) and smaller titles, which give me the impression her steamy romances are sweeter. Grace Burrowes clearly has a lot of books in the same genre and feels confident to show her name in the middle of the cover. Is it a good choice? Well, if it works. Personally, I think it just messes up the composition, but if it works, it works. Sometimes your author name carries weight and is an advantage over others, so of course you should feature prominently. Mary Balogh seems to be following in Grace’s footsteps (or maybe it’s the other way around), yet giving it a different touch by bringing the couple closer to the viewer, making it feel more intimate.


 

covers_DRESSMoving on to the last row, where we have some variety, especially in terms of subject.

By now, I hope Courtney Milan’s style can be easily identified by you: girls in long dresses looking directly at the camera, the same hand-written font and brown background mixed with one single bright tone of color (pink and blue in this case). Notice how there’s no couple here, but these stories are romance anyway. What does that tell you? Personally, it implies to me that the heroines will be the main focus, their personalities and conflicts arising from it. (Checking the synopsis it seems I’m right).

Later we’ll talk about contrast, but for now see how the title and author name in white pops out compared to “A Good Debutantes Guide to Ruin”. While both use the same style of illustration, Sophie Jordan’s cover compared to Milan’s is weaker. Why? It doesn’t work as a thumbnail. You can’t see the title or the name of the author that easily and when placed side-by-side, it just fades next to the bright white title of Milan’s. The illustration is lovely, better than Milan’s, but when the composition doesn’t work, it weakens the whole cover.

“Loving Rose” has a great picture of a period-appropriate couple. It’s different from the previous covers because the nature of the touching is far more tame, while at the same time suggesting tenderness/passion (the faces slightly touching, but not enough, implying earning for something not yet achieved). A hard thing to do. The background also helps the whole cover appear more professional. The pink of her dress draws the eye in (again: contrast) and the blue/purple sky suggest sweetness and romance. If I was into Regency Romance (and I am), I might even buy this book if the blurb works for me too. Of course, that’s because this particular cover, above all, fits my personal taste. Taste is an important variable in design, one that’s out of our control as designers. But as long as your cover fits your genre and it isn’t technically horrible (which I plan to explain later), you’ll be fine.

After analyzing similarities and differences of the covers in your genre, you’ll now have a picture of what exactly a good historical romance cover needs to have. Reproducing the choices of the majority of your peers will guarantee that your work will be quickly recognized as the appropriate genre. While the differences will, instead, help you rise above the “competition”. So yes, while I’m advocating for you to follow what others are doing, there’s very good reason to shake things up (just be careful of doing too much and losing the genre feel).

Okay, now what?

3. Planning your cover – Thumbnails, Composition and Semiotics.

Now that we accumulated and analyzed our references the next step is to create a simple mockup of the cover. Even if you are planning to pay a cover designer this step is vital.  The designer won’t know your book or your marketing strategy as well as you. While they might have more experience in terms of what works in certain genres, they’ll rely on you to inform them of your plans and goals for the cover. They might suggest things (and I strongly advise you to listen to them), but in the end the one who needs to feel confident with the final result is you.

Step 1.

To plan your cover you’re going to combine the references we gathered with the premise/overall goal of your novel. Let’s say we have a focus on a heroine who is confident, witty and that the novel is really about her, more than her love life. Let’s say it has witty comebacks and romantic banter between the two leads and maybe even some kissing. So it’s a light, fun romance about a leading lady with a strong personality. Historical, but joyful. Like similar to Emma from Jane Austen maybe. The title of our fake book is going to be “Kiss and Tell” and will be a debut novel of an unknown author. And won’t be part of a series, at least for now (who knows, if our fake novel turns out to be popular, why not expand into a series later! haha).

coversketchesStep 2. 

Next we’ll grab paper and pencil and start to sketch. (Don’t worry if you can’t draw, we aren’t going to create the Sistine Chapel here, just some geometrical forms). This step is all about discovering ideas and experimenting with composition. This is not going to be the final cover, it may not even be remotely similar to it, but is still important in order to realize what works and what doesn’t.

So, go ahead: make various small thumbnails with a similar proportion of the final cover, then fill them with a few concepts. This isn’t the time to worry about looking pretty, keeping straight lines or any of that. Just draw whatever you feel like it. Use the references if you are unsure on what to do. The purpose of this exercise is to let our design juices flowing, trying things and tossing what isn’t working. Use stick figures, stock pictures or scribbles, it doesn’t matter. For our example, I made 4 quick ones. This didn’t take more than 10 minutes. Also, I made only 4, but the ideal is to do at least 20. The less experience you have with design, the more you need to do. (On the left my sketches. You can see how bare they are. The proportions are not exactly right, everything is very rudimentary, but the essence of the covers are there anyway.)

Done with your 20 layouts? Great. Time to choose them to advance to the next step.

Step 3. 

Not all thumbnails will work out in the long run. Most of them will have some major flaw or too many minor ones. To spot their problems, I’m going to start talking about the boring design stuff now, sorry! But that’s what you are here for right? So let’s do this.

You need to look out for three things while deciding which thumbnail to pick: composition, semiotics and complexity of execution.

The last one, complexity of execution, is easy enough to explain: okay, so I have this layout, but can I turn it into reality? Do I have the technical know-how to do it? Can you afford to buy quality stock photos?

If you are designing the cover yourself, this is pretty important. No matter how great your cover concept is if you can’t do it, then it’ll turn out shitty. There’s beauty in simplicity, you don’t need to have a lot of elements floating around, illustrations or photoshop-manipulated photos. If you are just preparing the sketch to show it to a cover designer, then go to town! The artist will have the skills and the access to good stock photos. If not, then let’s talk about the boring parts.

Composition is a difficult beast to tame. It’s all about the placement of visual elements in order to guide the eye in a purposeful way. Wikipedia has more details on it, but for the purposes of our little article here, I’ll just say that there are techniques that compel us to look toward something in a certain way, in a certain order, and they do this by the use of lines, geometrical forms and contrast. There are few basic composition rules that are guaranteed to please the eye, they are:

There are few basic composition rules that are guaranteed to please the eye, they are:

Rule of Thirds

This one is simple enough. You divide your cover into nine equal parts, two horizontal lines and two vertical ones — all equally spaced. These lines will determine the position of the elements on the layout. It’s recommended to place elements under the lines or where they meet to give the whole picture dynamism and tension. Here’s an example:

coverC_ruleofthirdsOf my layouts, cover C uses the rule of thirds. Notice how the couple touching (well, they will, if I decide on this one) is on the intersecting lines in the top right. The title will be bellow the bottom horizontal line while the bottom of her dress will go under it. Also, by placing the majority of the elements slightly to the right, I create weight on that side and the dynamism the rule of thirds provide. Just like in the above example, the mountain hill was aligned slightly to the left, I did the same to the opposite side. There’s always room for adjustments, of course, but this is a start.

Symmetry and BalancecoverA_symmetry

Another easy concept: maintaining the balance of the layout. This requires elements of equal or similar “weight” to be positioned in a symmetrical way. So if you have a tree on your left, you need one on your right as well. The human eye is attracted to symmetry (we find it aesthetically pleasing) so it’s a composition that will be beautiful with little effort. Balance can also be achieved by placing something in the center of the space. Cover A was made with this composition in mind. We have the girl on own side and the title on the other, occupying the same space, thus providing balance in the composition.

Golden Ratio

goldenration

coverD_gridcoverD_goldenratioGolden ratio is a design principle based on a number considered to be the “perfect number”, this ratio is said to appear in nature and was used by artists and painters throughout Art History. It’s similar to the rule of thirds, but provides more leeway to the positioning of elements, and depending on the subject in the image, can work better. There are two ways of applying the Golden Ratio: the Fibonacci spiral and the Phi grid. The grid is applied just like the rule of thirds, except the horizontal lines are closer together. The spiral marks the exact point the eye will be drawn to. Cover D uses the spiral and the grid: notice how I divided the title space with the image using the ratio’s top line and the girl’s face is located between the two horizontal lines of the grid. By placing the title near the focal point (instead of the girl), I hope to draw attention to it. Usually our human eyes are attracted to human faces, that’s just instinct, so since this layout has already a human face featuring prominently, I tried to balance it out with the spiral.

Leading Linesleadinglines

coverB_leadinglinesTo finish off this quick guide to composition, let’s talk about leading lines. It goes like this: our eyes are attracted to and follow lines. You can see this a lot in animation and comics, where artists use “action lines” to imply movement when there’s none. Of course, in comics, they are literally lines, which helps illustrate them better, but they don’t always have to be limited by their simplest geometrical form. They can also be fences, lines of trees, roads, petals of a flower or any shape that leads to a clear focal point. They can be curved or straight. They are also used to construct perspective in drawings.

Cover B uses the leading lines of her dress and figure to lead the eye to her waist where the title will be. It might not work depending on the photo we find, but it’s a very dynamic layout, so I’m willing to try it out.

Semiotics

So, what’s the deal with semiotics? Well, it’s the study of signs and/or meanings of basically everything, but in the context of cover design, is about understanding that visual elements have meaning. These meanings vary, of course, from culture to culture, time to time. For a time, pink meant manliness / power so boys wore pink clothes. Things changed since then. But since we already looked at our references, we have the right coversketchescontext for our cover, now it’s time to analyze our own work. What does it mean to have a couple looking at each other? What does it mean when they look at the viewer instead? What if you used an object in the cover instead of a human? What does that mean?

If you are feeling overwhelmed and unsure what means what, just search images on stock photo sites with the theme/meaning you want to express in your cover. Search for “Fun romance” or “happiness” or any feeling you want and look what kind of pictures appear.

Application of semiotics on my sketches:

1. I wanted to show the main character’s personality, which is connected with the overall feel of the novel. Since she has such a strong personality, I decided to have her take a lot of cover space (more space equals to importance). But she has an attitude, banter and sassy personality, so I tried to hide parts of her body in all sketches, that creates a mystery/distance from the viewer. You don’t really know her fully, she doesn’t let you. She has secrets, she’s inviting you to wonder what’s her deal.

2. You might notice I didn’t add the author name and only vaguely suggested where the title will be. The reason for this is that without an established audience or brand, the author name doesn’t really matter, and since we are also dealing with a fake standalone novel, what’s really going to sell this novel is the personality of the character, not the title.

3. Cover A has the main character looking behind her with a smile at something/someone outside the frame. This hints at a playful mystery. Cover B you can’t see her eyes, but she’s smiling. Her dress will be the focus and the way she’s close to the “camera” hints she’s walking towards us and is confident with herself. Cover D has a more romantic appeal with its couple sitting and holding hands. Their faces are close together, denoting intimacy, but the main character occupies more space, especially with her dress, and this suggests she has control of the situation. She’s the one with her body turned toward the viewer and away from her romantic partner, so she’s in control, aloof, playful. He, on the other hand, is facing towards her, longingly, under her spell. And, lastly, cover D has her looking directly at the camera with a smirk, under a window and thus inviting you into her world while still being somewhat distant.

Step 4. 

By now you must’ve chosen at least 4 or 5 sketches that use proven composition technics as well transmit the right signals to the viewer (happiness, playfulness, sadness etc). Time to clean up and place them in the right proportion. This will help transmit your ideas more clearly, be it to yourself or to the artist you hired. In this step, I also play a little with values of grayness, organizing what will be in the foreground as opposed to the background (again, I’ll explain this a bit further down). Already I can see that cover C and D will be very busy while A and B are more clean and modern. Here’s the result:

KissAndTell_CoversH

Using the 3 items we elaborated earlier (Composition, Semiotics and Complexity), I decided that cover C and D were just too complex without doing a custom photoshoot or commissioning an illustrator. Odds of finding stock photos of girls of the appropriate age and clothing posing by a window like that are very small, as well finding a couple in a swing. So I’m going to focus my efforts on cover A and B.

4. Evoking the right feelings with colors

This part is for those who plan to make their own covers and I’m going to talk about color. We already talked a little about this while covering our references, but now I’ll go into details. Just like specific images and layouts evoke certain emotions and ideas, so do colors. Bright colors, dark colors — they are our tools of the trade.

There are a whole lot of colors to be used, I’m sure you have noticed. How do we know which one fits our cover best?

Bellow there’s an example of a color study. Notice that for cover A, I went for the lighter tones; while on the right I used darker ones. Why is that? Well, since cover A featured the main character more prominently, as well her eyes and face, I thought it should be a lighter one to show proximity and likeability. We don’t want her to look arrogant or too dismissive (further down, you’ll see a version of this cover that does this). Lighter tones are usually associated with sweetness and innocence (They are, after all, called baby tones or baby colors).

KissAndTell_ColorStudies

For B, I wanted to be a little more secrecy and playfulness to it. Her dress is the true focus of the cover, this creates two things: distance and the suggestion of the historical era the book belongs to. Darker colors are more serious fitting with a more adult view of the character: someone who is not above a little teasing and might be hiding something.

There’s also the decision between monochromatic colors over the high contrast. When there’s little contrast, the image usually feels flat and aged (especially when there’s low saturation as well). It also is more calming and easier on the eyes (Again, depending on the saturation), which is exactly what I want for cover A, so I went with the light brown and white for it.

Now, for cover B I wanted the opposite. Contrast gives it depth and richness to a picture, it draws the eye in like a good Micheal Bay explosion, I guess. It works really well in thumbnail form because of this effect. Of course, go too far and you end up with Transformers 20X: Moar explosions. It hurts your eyes and feels like a cheap ploy to get your money. Too much of a good thing and all that. Bright red (very saturated) + blue isn’t going to work (you’ll see in a minute), but caramel (low saturation) and purple (darker) might.

5. Building the final cover

Now for the actual covers. We’ll combine everything we decided on so far into the final product. IMPORTANT: The photos used here are not stock or royalty free, I’m just using them as placeholders since I’m not planning on using them commercially.

THE DON’Ts

KissAndTell_DONTs

As you can see, the wrong colors and fonts really can ruin a good idea. Can you spot what’s wrong with these?

The first one is just too simple: there’s no interaction between the 3 elements (background, photo and title), the font is too modern for Historical Romance and while the photo is nice and the color on the background might fit, it lacks flair. Adding details enriches the cover and looks more professional.

The second one has an elaborated background, but combined with an elaborated font (that is barely legible) ends up being too confusing and bloated. The blue on the background is too purple-heavy and thus gives no contrast and even fights for attention from the pinks from the photo and title. Here, it would be also impossible to read properly the title.

Finally the third one uses high contrast in a way that’s not visually appealing for a cute historical romance, it lacks depth because it has no background except for the gradient blue, and finally the font might’ve worked for YA novels, but using this tone of blue over bright red simply hurts our eyes (again, careful with contrasting colors). In a smaller thumbnail, it would be impossible to read the title.

So how we fix them?

THE DOs

KissAndTell_DOs

First, I picked one single font for all them but varied their colors and positioning. This font is easy to read, but still looks like Mr. Darcy’s handwriting. I also tried harder to give all of them a more “sleek” look by editing the brightness/contrast of the original photos and adding additional shadows.

I did two versions of cover A to illustrate how the same idea can be expressed differently by colors and photos. The first one is sweet, with a model dressed in light colors and simple dress, her face is round and the smile genuine. In the background, I placed a flowery wallpaper in light brown, this is to create depth and suggest “historical romance”. Notice the shadow I put behind her so she doesn’t give the impression of a copy and paste photo in Windows Paint (careful not to overdo it). The skewed position of the title, on the other hand, suggests dynamism (our book has witty banter and fun dialogue remember!).

The second version is darker, and I used the model’s dress as a starting point for the colors, going for a monochromatic combination but still with enough contrast to make the title and the photo pop up on thumbnail form. The darker background also fits better with the smirk and style of the model: less sweet, more mature (darker tones).

For C, I went with another combination of colors: less vibrant, darker in the background and lighter in the front, giving a velvet mixed with sweetness feeling. The font is simpler but still have a certain old-handwriting quality to it. The white color on it gives enough contrast, so the cover works better as a thumbnail. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it does its job.

And that’s about it! I hope this tutorial was useful to anyone and I’m always open to questions.

Credits:
http://www.deviantart.com/art/Tulle-Ball-Gown-Sweetheart-Sleeveless-With-Appliqu-390317913
http://nancyloveslife.deviantart.com/art/pink-prom-dress-403241629
http://www.deviantart.com/art/Regency-dress-2-322550750

Those Who Remain: Book Two is out!

Those Who Remain: Book Two is out! That’s the second book of my zombie trilogy. Now I have two books out, and that’s kind of crazy! and hopefully it’ll please readers of the first one.  Now, time to get back to writing the last one… I’m planning on doing that during November, with the help of NaNoWriMo, see if I can speed the process a bit. I want to be the best book of all three and end it in a satisfying way.

Here’s the book’s description:

ThoseWhoRemainBook2OutThe longer someone survives in the Zombie Apocalypse, the worse things get. Ammo and hot water run out, and everyone gets cranky. The high survival rate of sociopaths doesn’t help either.

So it’s no wonder things are going from bad to worse for Danny. His town is being threatened by a band of mercenaries with a thirst for blood and their only chance of winning is Lily. Now alone, she’s determined to reach Redwood and save the very town that wanted her family gone.

Meanwhile, Dr. Maria and Seargent Tigh travel across snow-filled roads toward the unlikely chance of civilization. They might have better luck than Peter and Laurie, who are trying to survive in the woods by themselves.

But we can’t forget a certain briefcase…

Those Who Remain: Book Two is part of a trilogy.