Friday, January 19, 2024

a moment in the day: soup

It's Thursday, just the end of the work day, and I clock myself out in my little upstairs work room. Wasn't sure I'd make it through without the power going out again. Just as I click to clock, another gust of wind buffets the side of the house and I hold my breath again. 

Last Saturday at the start of the polar vortex, we lost power along with, what did they say, a hundred and sixty thousand people in Portland? We were out for about six hours but loads of folks were out for days, some still out even now, and the thaw we were told we'd start to get has brought us this ice storm and this wind instead. You start to think you'll never be able to trust your lights and your heater again.

I switch my work computer out for my home computer, make sure it's still charged up to 100%, plug my phone into its own charger but take my old defunct phone with me downstairs as a ready flashlight. Immediately I go to the thermos of soup on the counter and start unscrewing the top.

I pour the soup into a pot and start it reheating.

It's not really soup. It's mostly broth, something I threw together on Saturday night after the power came back on, figuring I'd prepare in case the power went out again that night. And it's not really a thermos. It's a metal water bottle, insulated yes, but this thing doesn't hold the heat too long. When you first fill it, the bottle is so hot you can't touch it, but the contents cool to lukewarm within three hours. I know because I've been reheating it and letting it cool, reheating it and letting it cool ever since.

Now the lights flicker. They've been flickering all day.

Funny how much magical thinking you do in times like these. When I started making the broth on Saturday, I expected the lights to snap off again any minute, but there was something in the back of my mind that said that because I was getting prepared, the electricity would hold and I wouldn't need it. Like the more prepared you are, abracadabra, the less you'll need to be prepared. Add to that preparedness the candles still waiting all over the house and the YouTube videos I watched that claim you can cook something using nothing but tea candles and a muffin tin. 

My broth is simmering, and I shut the stove off, take the pot over to the cutting board, and lift it over the insulated bottle. It's heavy in my hand as I slowly pour. With each inch of hot liquid down into the bottle, I feel an inch better about maybe making it through this night with the power on in the house.

No, I'm not going to drink it. Are you kidding? This stuff has been sitting out on the counter unrefrigerated for five days. It's not for consuming anymore. It's my jinx broth. Here just for magical thinking. 

If I dump it, the power will go out. If I leave it and fail to reheat it, the power will go out. 

I finish pouring. Hold the bottle with a dishtowel and screw the top back on. Put it back over on the counter. Have to stay on top of things. Have to stay prepared. And we'll be alright. Right?

Monday, January 8, 2024

Book Cover: Imagine a Door

The story of the book cover design project for the upcoming Forest Avenue Press book Imagine a Door ended up being more about words than design.

In a way, Imagine a Door is a very different book for Forest Avenue Press—and in a way, we're actually going back to our roots. Forest Avenue publishes mostly novels, and the occasional memoir. Imagine a Door, on the other hand, is a book for writers. Part how-to, part inspiration for living one's best creative life. And we did do one book that had hints of both of these themes, Brave on the Page, our very first publication, back in 2012 when we produced the books on the Espresso Book Machine in the Purple Room of Powell's City of Books.

As I said before, the story of this project was more about words than design. I.e., what words were going to go on this cover? The first title Laura gave me was In Progress. It's the phrase writers see in their Submittable queue when they've submitted a piece and are waiting to hear what an agent or publisher thinks. It's also the phrase writers use when they're deep in the writing and editing process of a book or story; that piece is a work in progress

But in the wider sense, we're all works in progress, which goes back to the wider theme of Laura's book, the human side that I think sets it apart from a lot of the writing books out there on the market.

The early concepting for the graphic was a lot of Laura and me emailing back and forth, shooting out ideas. discussing what might help sell the book, what concepts might have been already done too much. Laura:

"I like the concept of IN PROGRESS as a cover—something happening, not static. Whether that’s a sentence being written or a visual cue that something is happening, I don’t know. So many covers have the crossouts like things are being edited out as part of the process of the cover, and I feel like that’s been overused. 

"Likewise, I’ve thought composition book, paper torn out of a spiral notebook, notebook with spiral, etc. have all been done and re-done. Same with crumpled paper. So maybe there’s a phrase or an image from the work itself that will leap to mind as a cover option."

Then Laura saw a non-writing book that really struck something for her and shared it with me. She wondered if we might similarly let the focus be on the words with a simple element or elements adding a flourish.

Not only did the elegant style resonate but the rain, itself, in this sample. I thought about the struggle that writers go through with work and rejection and how the goal of a book is often like an impossible dream. I pictured a central small image of a book with a rainbow growing out of it, signaling the good at the end of that struggle. And instead of rain, I pictured pages raining down. 

I started by building my book using lines and shapes in Illustrator.

Then pages falling from the sky and collecting in stacks. The stacks were, of course, more involved to make than the pages.

I sent Laura a trio of (very similar) samples.

And at the same time, somehow completely forgetting about the raindrops in the Seattle book example, I created some mock-ups with raindrops as well.

Laura was happy with what I'd come up with: "They hit the cheerful tone I hope to have, and they’re vibrant and joyful, like in looking at them you know you’ll feel better if you read what’s inside."

Vibrant and joyful. I loved that that's what she saw. Because not only was it the right tone to convey for the book, but everything Laura touches, including her novel Singing Lessons for the Stylish Canary and this new project, is vibrant and joyful.

The rainbow made her think, what about trying a sun coming up out of the book instead, for the version with the pages tumbling down. "With rays like a child would draw, but cooler. Bands/triangles of yellow becoming part of the background." 

After she suggested this to me in an email, Laura headed off to go visit a friend who had new baby chicks. She followed that up with the roller derby. All the while, she was sending messages about her thoughts about the cover and its imagery.

"After I wrote about the sun with triangle rays I realized that might look religious. Not what I meant! But maybe a sweet sun with lines for rays might still work." 


"I do think I like the rainbow better, and I like the tiny bit of lots of color in there."


"Just thought of a flower growing out of the book—bright green stem and bright petals."

and almost immediately

"Just to add onto that flower idea, what about a bunch of flowers springing out of the center of the book, like a magician's bouquet? Illustrated with simple lines. There could be yellow and red flowers against the blue on the pages cover."

Laura's snippets of thought throughout that day felt like that same thing again: vibrant and joyful.

I liked her idea a lot. Creation. Growth. I set to work and had more samples waiting for her when she got home.

She chose the one with the five flowers. She liked that so much that we ended up turning that blooming book into an icon for her then new Substack The Bright Side.

That was back in April of last year. Since then, the focus of the cover turned to words. Proposed changes to the title, long discussions about the perfect subtitle. Also during this long time, Laura was working on future upcoming Forest Avenue Press releases, so progress on In Progress started and stopped, stopped and started.

First she decided to add a word to the title. She was considering Work in Process (which she thought had probably been done), Manuscript in Progress, and her favorite, Pages in Progress. I grabbed that last one and played with a couple samples.

As you can see, changes in words caused a need for changes in the pages fluttering down.

Then at the end of May, she asked me what I thought of the title Imagine a Door. "From a design standpoint, I feel like the papers framing the title will conjure the shape of a door, and we won't need to add a literal door. There could be a key or a keyhole or something if we felt like it needed something literal," she said. "The subtitle would be something like: A writer's guide to loving the work, ignoring the hubbub, and building a sustainable creative practice."

I wanted to wait until l completely sure of the title before I did any more tinkering with cover design. Laura ran the idea by some others, she and I continued working on other upcoming Forest Avenue titles, and it wasn't until August that we settled in to work on this again. By then Imagine a Door was set in stone, although the subtitle was not, and discussion on that continued for quite a while.

Continued, in fact, all the way up until the end of November when we finally settled on what will work best. I think it's fitting that the cover design process for a book about words and writing was so focused on words themselves. (And I pop this final cover in (sans stand-in blurb, so just use your imagination) knowing full well that sometimes subtitles get altered yet again at the very last minute because it is the priority of a press to change its mind.)

When prepping for this post, I couldn't remember if there were more interim titles, so I emailed Laura. She had this to say:

"I had, like, a million titles for this project. The in progress and pages in progress were only the latest iterations of me panicking about what to call it! Finding IMAGINE A DOOR happened after the original cover, right? I think I needed you to see the book in your head, to create a visual for it, in order for me to land on the right title. To believe in its existence."

Imagine a Door will be out in 2025. It will have a foreword by Beth Kephart, author of, among many other things, the Forest Avenue title Wife | Daughter | Self. More information on Forest Avenue Press is here. And here's a taste.


Some books fly into being in a matter of months or a few years. Others—like my debut novel—take more than a decade. There’s no “correct” timeline, regardless of what writing coaches and your author friends say; if you decide on a self-imposed deadline, and that helps you focus, great. 

But manuscripts take the time they take. In the early drafting of Imagine a Door, I gave my neighbor Chrysia daily updates during our dog walks. More accurately, I offered stagnation reports. I couldn’t seem to get past the first ten thousand words. I kept adding and subtracting, refining and rethinking and erasing and rewriting.

Ten thousand became kind of a joke between Chrysia and me. 

Sometimes I had 10,071 words.

Sometimes 10,842. 

After paddling around that word count mark, surging over then dipping under, I decided to slice my draft into separate Word documents. I couldn’t count words at the press of a button anymore! A more organic narrative began to emerge once I stopped trying to measure my progress.