Tag Archives: Carl Hiaasen

Guilty Pleasure: The Work of Carl Hiaasen

Writers read books for a variety of reasons. They seek literary value, a good story, insight into the human condition, memorable characters, and the discovery of greater truths. I suspect, however, that every writer has his guilty pleasures. I’ve got mine.

During the early 1980s, I was in the hospital for abdominal surgery. My brother, while studying for his master’s degree at the University of Florida, discovered the work of Carl Hiaasen. My brother brought me Hiaasen’s debut novel, Tourist Season, to read while I recuperated. I laughed so hard I nearly popped my stitches. I was hooked.

Hiaasen is more than a guilty pleasure, though. He’s no pulp fiction writer. Hiaasen is one of the brilliant satirists of our time, a modern-day Mark Twain. Dubbed the Conscience of the Sunshine State, Hiaasen has written twelve novels, including Skin Tight, Double Whammy, Strip Tease, Sick Puppy, Native Tongue, and his most recent, the hilarious Star Island. The novel centers on a Britney Spears-type rock star who hires a double to stand in for her during her regular visits to rehab. He even collaborated with a cadre of other South Florida writers on a shared novel called Naked Came the Manatee, another treasure.

I’ve read all of Hiaasen’s novels, even his children’s books. He writes about a side of the Sunshine State you don’t see in the slick tourism ads. Hiaasen’s Florida is a crazy menagerie of sleazy developers, corrupt politicians, clueless tourists, snow bird retirees, garden-variety sociopaths, and militant environmentalists.

Hiaasen has a special knack for dialogue that crackles with humor and authenticity. He also has a talent for portraying the fuzzy line between good and evil. The phrase, “honor among thieves” comes to mind. His stories recognize we are all imperfect human beings and that cops and PIs and criminals and lowlifes suffer the same foibles.

I’ve always identified with Hiaasen because of his background as a newspaper reporter and columnist. I was a reporter for fifteen years and it got in my blood. I missed writing when I left the newspaper business. The transition from reporter to fiction writer is not easy. Hiaasen spoke about it in an interview with The New Statesman. “The one thing a lifetime in the newspaper business teaches you is pace—you spend all your time trying to make sure the reader’s going to finish what you’ve been writing…It affects not just the pace of the writing, but how you put together a scene. All the senses you use covering a news story are the same senses you use when creating a scene for a novel.”

The real world provides a rich inventory of bizarre stories and Hiaasen sees this is a challenge for fiction writers. In an interview with The Guardian, Hiaasen said, “The hardest thing for me, for anybody who writes satire or any kind or contemporary fiction, is to invent a scenario that doesn’t eventually come true, and if you’re writing satire, you don’t want to be behind the curve, but ahead of it. Sarah Palin. You couldn’t have invented a plausible character in fiction as outrageous, unqualified and unintentionally comical as she is.”

As a columnist for The Miami Herald Hiaasen noted that Florida provides plenty of grist for novels. “The Florida in my novels is not as seedy as the real Florida. It’s hard to stay ahead of the curve. Every time I write a scene that I think is the sickest thing I have ever dreamed up, it is surpassed by something that happens in real life.”

Hiaasen has built characters around crazy stories he has come across in the newspaper. His characters are among the most interesting in fiction. Skink, who appears in several novels, is a former Governor of Florida who abruptly left office to live in the wilds and eat road kill. And by the way, he has a glass eye that he yanks out every now and then to scare people.  Another character juggled human skulls and still another, the memorable Chemo, sported a weed whacker for an arm.

You can’t make this stuff up. Oh, wait a minute. You can.

Do you have an author who is a guilty pleasure?

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What Makes a Good Book Cover-Part I

Writers can spend years working on a novel, sharpening and polishing the manuscript until it’s ready for publication. Shouldn’t writers spend at least something close to that kind of effort on the cover design for their book?

This isn’t an issue for traditionally published authors. Unless you are a superstar author the publisher generally determines the cover art for your book. For self-published authors, however, the cover design is crucial. It’s as important, if not more so, than the book itself. Why? Your friends and writing colleagues will buy your book based on their familiarity with your work, but consumers who don’t know you are going to be drawn to or repelled from what they see on your book page on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

So what makes a good book cover? A good book cover should have:

Visual Integrity. I was going to write “visual attractiveness,” but that’s subjective. What one person might find attractive, another person might view as ugly. Visual integrity means all of the elements of the design work together to evoke an image in the mind of the reader. Think of your book cover as a marketing piece for your work. It is the number one marketing piece for your book. From a non-designer’s perspective, what I don’t like in any marketing piece is clutter. A book cover should not be so busy the reader’s eye doesn’t know where to go.

Elements that reflect the tone and emotion of the book. The cover art should express what the book is all about. Look at the covers of a romance and a mystery novel. You will see how the different elements support and reflect the genre. A reader would not confuse the covers of a Carl Hiaasen novel and an Anne Tyler novel. One screams out “over-the-top” funny, while the other is quiet and introspective.

Readability. This means selecting fonts and typography that are clean and readable. Stay away from fonts that are difficult on the eyes. If the reader can’t make out the book title at a quick glance, you could lose a sale. It’s the same with colors. Choose colors carefully. Bright colors have a certain connotation to the reader. You wouldn’t buy a novel with a dark theme if the colors on the cover were bright pink and yellow. This also means that the type size should be big enough so a reader can clearly see the book title and author’s name at a quick glance.

Compelling images. Whether it’s a murder weapon or drops of blood –essential for a mystery book cover – or a spaceship with aliens, the images should draw the reader in. The reader remembers powerful images on a book cover.

An emotional appeal to the reader. This is one of those things that hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.

Distinctiveness. Your cover must stand out from the crowd. A book with a religious theme could have a cross or a crucifix on the cover, but it’s been done a thousand times before. Unless the cross is displayed in an unusual fashion, it’s not going to stand out.

Should a self-published author design her own cover? My answer is a resounding, “No.” Unless you have no other option, find a graphic designer. You wouldn’t perform brain surgery without a medical degree and years of training. Why do you think you can design a book cover? If you can’t afford a designer, barter or try to get a young designer who is looking for work to design your cover.

For more detailed information on book cover designs read this excellent post by Jeff Kleinman from Folio Literary Management site:

Here’s another helpful discussion in this post by Andrew Pantoja

There’s also a site called 99Designs, a crowd-sourced design site where the author names his price and graphic artists submit designs in a contest with the author selecting the winner. I cannot vouch for or endorse this site because I’ve never used it, but the point is there are low-cost resources out there for self-published authors.

So how did I come up with the design for my first novel, Small Change? In my next post, I will describe the process I used.

What do you like in a book cover? What are some of your favorite book covers?

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