Friday, April 18, 2014


Artist's rendering of newly discovered Kepler 186f.

Five hundred light years from Earth in Cygnus A,  five planets circle a small, low-energy star.  The M-dwarf gives off a reddish light and less heat than our own G-type Sol, but the solar system it anchors, dubbed Kepler 186, is nonetheless remarkable.  The fifth planet in that system is the closest yet to being what we could call “Earth-like”, with a size, composition, distance from its sun, possible temperature and potential for liquid surface water and atmosphere similar to our own.

The find was announced April17 by scientists of NASA’s Kepler orbiting telescope project, and is detailed in the current issue of Science magazine. Kepler's mission is to scout the galaxy for planetary bodies. As mission science improves, planetary finds are coming thick and fast, with more and more falling into the “Goldilocks zone”, that orbital distance from the sun that is “not too near and not too far” to allow for proper temperature and liquid surface water to support life as we know it.

Born under a red sun? 

Kepler 186f, as the new planet has been named, is a mere ten percent larger than Earth, which makes it almost certainly a rocky planet like ours.  Of the Kepler telescopes’ previous 961 discoveries, only a few dozen have been in the habitable zone, and most of them have been gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn.  That makes the new discovery more like home than any yet discovered.

Harvard scientist David Charbonneau, who was not part of the NASA team, confirmed it.  “Now we can point to a star and know that there really is a planet very similar to the Earth, at least in size and temperature.”

As for that red sun?  Well, we might just have to call the planet Krypton.

Cheers, Donna

Information for this article provided from “Planet Possesses Earth Features”, by Alicia Chang, AP Science Writer, THE FREE-LANCE STAR, April 18, 2014. Artists' renditions credit NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech.

Monday, April 14, 2014

And the Survey SAYS...

Last week we posted a poll on cover art preferences for SFR and offered two cover groups, one of uniformed characters and the other featuring bare torsos. Then we asked visitors to choose their favorite cover group.

The poll is closed and the readers have spoken. We very much appreciate everyone's enthusiasm in contributing to this hot topic.

Here are the results from the "Should We Put a Shirt on It" poll:

THIS Cover Group (in uniform)
THAT Cover Group (out of uniform)
I don't have a preference
I prefer particular covers from both groups

From the poll results, the preferences of the majority seems clear, but it may not be quite as cut and dried as it appears. Many of the commenters had some valid points to offer in the discussion. Among them:

Lizzie Newell said:
"Topless is fine if the story has a lot of sexual content but I prefer some tenderness between the characters, not sale of beefcake."

Monica Stoner said:
"I think the nekkid chest covers should indicate a level of sexual heat."

Cathryn Cade said:
"I agree the cover should indicate the level of heat in the book, whether sci fi or other genre (of romance)...It's a signal to readers to expect another CC romance, an adventure yes, but with heat."

Pippa Jay said:
"I'm not a fan of a shirtless chest particularly. Or I feel they should be on erotica or hot romance to indicate the heat level rather than on just any romance cover."

Linnea Sinclair said:
"Interesting timing on your question/poll as I recently regained my rights to my THE DOWN HOME ZOMBIE BLUES and my agent was emphatic we return to the more SF-y covers (and less romance-y covers) because the move to the latter hurt my sales when Bantam did the switch (little did we know...)"

Heather Massey said:
"I do love a heroine or hero in uniform, but frankly we've done well advocating for covers that represent SFR *at all.* Our efforts have definitely paid off."

Donna S. Frelick said:
"I think it's interesting that the best covers of both groups featured couples--either dressed or semi-dressed. One of the salient features of great SFR is the balance between hero and heroine, and I think the cover should reflect that...As for heat level, yes, I do want some indication of that in the way the couple is portrayed. I don't want them looking away from each other, not touching, completely separate, as some of these covers show."

Marva Dasef said:
"Bare bodies are a trite carry over from Regency romances. I think SFR is better than that. Our stories are about SF, not just R."

Karin Shah said:
"I don't care which kind of cover is on an SFR, I'll read it!"

Maria said:
"...I think that the fact I liked certain covers from each group really reflects that it's more than just the image itself - there is a whole image, color, font thing going on for me when I look at covers."

PaulaL said:
"I like illustrative cover, which tell me about the -story- and the setting in time and space and culture. Nude bodies don't tell me about the setting and the story, they tell me that there are bodies with clothes off perhaps about to commence docking moves--which is NOT something characteristic to the particular story as opposed to any other time/space locus where people might take clothes off to have sex.."

There were a few comments on why we may not often see cover art with characters in uniform:

Greta van der Rol said:
"I would LOVE to be able to use pictures of men in uniform on my covers. But stock photo sites just don't have them. I've resorted to male torsos (not headless) to signal there is some romance in them, but I'm trending away from that."

Heather Massey said:
"Probably because the photographers would have to pay for renting/making costumes. Even if they did, the financial risk is probably fairly high. No guarantee of return on the investment...A good cover designer can probably find ways to work with the limits of available images."

Pauline Baird Jones said:
"It's not like there aren't costumes out there. I see them at the cons. Now we need someone with vision and a camera to set up shop..."

We also had some viewpoints about what should/should not be pictured on a cover:

Pauline Baird Jones said:
"When I went indie, I went back to covers w/o people. (wry grin)"

Cathryn Cade said:
"I must admit if I see a sci fi book with no people on the cover, I will pass it over UNLESS I know the author, because I assume there is little or no romance. I love sci fi, but I want the romance too."

Lizzie Newell said:
"I have a strong objection to decapitated male torso, the ones with the man's head cropped out. I view it as objectification of men. I suppose turn about is fair play, but I'd rather read about interesting characters than male mannequins."

And a few shared personal cover art experiences:

Pauline Baird Jones said:
"My last publisher used a corset shot for Steamrolled. I got a comment at an event about the reader being glad to see some "erotic steampunk."...And my books was totally not erotic. So obviously the book sent a message to that reader that was bound to be disappointed."

Lynda Alexander said:
"I know my SFR first proposed cover was exactly that-- a naked man's torso....and the whole point of the story was that my hero was a shapeshifter of the REPTILE kind. Why would I want a man on the cover??? Oy... (fortunately, my editor also went to bat for me, and we ended up with a dressed woman on the front instead)."

Pippa Jay said:
"I've just sent in cover art forms for a SciFi romance novella where I specified no naked torsos - will be interesting to see if I get it."

Cathryn Cade said:
"Since my books are hot sci fi romance, my heroes will no doubt continue to appear missing part of their clothing. It's a signal to readers to expect another CC romance, an adventure yes, but with heat."

Thanks to everyone who joined in on the discussion.

Friday, April 11, 2014


Four lads from Liverpool--and the man who believed in them.

As writers, we’re all familiar with the struggle to find that one person who believes in us enough to take us on as agent, the wider search to find the editor who loves the book as much as we do, to find the right people to present that book in just the right way to give it wings.  That constant quest for support, for faith, can be at times exhilarating, at times heartbreaking.  It can yield fabulous results—book deals, sales, great reviews, even fame and fortune.  Or it can yield nothing for months, even years, leading to frustration, discouragement and self-doubt.

Anyone who aims to perform an art at a high level—musician or painter, chef or dancer—plods along this uphill road marked by pleasant detours and washed out bridges, smooth pavement and potholes, dizzying peaks and dismal valleys.  The longer she perseveres, the fewer companions she’ll have.  Not everyone has the guts to stick it out, to see what’s around the next bend.  Talent is not enough to propel someone along this road.  You need determination and stubborn will and a kind of blindness to the steep drop-off on either side of you.  

I’m waxing lyrical today not only because I’m feeling lucky, having reached a little resting place along the way, with the prospect of publication of my first book Unchained Memory a reality now (by Ink’d Press, in February, 2015).  I also just finished reading over 800 densely packed pages of Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles: All These Years, Vol.1, Tune In.  (Yes, that’s 800 pages, and it only covers the Beatles from birth to early 1963, just as they are about to make it big.) The message I came away with was how close we came to never hearing that life-altering sound, how close the world was to losing something phenomenal, because “the powers that be” in music in London just could not perceive what was in front of them.

All of the young men who would become the Beatles knew, practically from the time they first picked up their guitars (or drumsticks), they would become something special.  They felt it, though the circumstances of their birth and education certainly gave them no reason to believe it.  Liverpool was desperately poor after the war, with few jobs to be had and few municipal resources to provide housing or clean up the bombed-out areas.  Only John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, who raised him, could be said to approach the middle class; for the others, remaining in the working class was a struggle.  

Richard Starkey (Ringo to the rest of us) was so sick as a child and young teenager, he eventually gave up on schooling.  The others barely made it through what we would consider high school.  But the music?  Yeah, that they knew everything about.  Rhythm and blues, rock and roll, country/western, blues, Elvis, Little Richard, the Shirelles, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Coasters, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Phil and Don Everly—they knew them all, every chord, every note, every nuance of voice.  And when they began to play together as a group—first John, Paul and George with a lesser drummer named Pete Best, then the three of them with the “metronome” that was Ringo, they had a playlist that could last them through the brutal marathon six-hour sets at the sleazy Hamburg nightclubs where they honed their art.

Fans back in Liverpool noticed the difference in them when they returned from Germany the first time.  When they returned the second time, and the third, they were so far above the local competition, it was as if they were playing in another league.  They had changed their hairstyle, giving up the greased-up Fifities look for something more . . . well, the only way Liverpudlians could describe it was “Continental”.  They wore black leather.  Chicks dug it.  They had a regular gig lunchtimes and nights at the Cavern, a converted underground warehouse that dripped sweat off the walls when packed with fans of the group, which was anytime they played now.

That’s where Brian Epstein saw them.  Brian was owner of NEMS Enterprises, a business consisting of two large record stores that had grown out of his family’s traditional furniture business.  He was the restless type, always looking for some new challenge for his energy and his intellect, and the record stores, although hugely successful, had just about run their course for him.  They did serve a singular, wonderful purpose, however.

Brian had a policy that if anyone requested a particular record, he would order not just a copy for the requester, but several more as well, thinking that anyone who requested a record was a kind of harbinger of sales.  Someone had come in requesting a copy of “My Bonnie” by Tony Sheridan and the Beat Boys.  He duly ordered it—and sold out.  He ordered more.  And sold those, too.  When informed that the “Beat Boys” were in fact the Beatles, a group really pulling them in down at the Cavern, he went to see for himself what the fuss was all about.

It was love at first sight.  Here was what he’d been looking for, the outlet for all his creative energy.  He was going to make these boys bigger than Elvis.  That suited the Beatles just fine, since they had always believed they’d one day be as big as Elvis (even John Lennon wouldn’t presume to be bigger). Within weeks they’d signed a contract for Brian to manage the Beatles, and he went to work.

This is where the story began to resonate with me.  Things were going great for the boys and for Brian until Brian hit a wall trying to get anyone in the music industry to listen to him.  I have this terrific band—they even write their own songs!—have a listen! Everywhere he went, the doors slammed in his face, not because the Beatles weren’t good—in most cases, the A&R men wouldn’t even give them a chance to audition—but because they were from Liverpool, or because they played electric guitars (“guitar groups aren’t popular!”), or simply because their name was odd (“Beatles? What kind of name is that???”)  The prevailing paradigm was for solo singers (this was the day of “teen heartthrobs” like Paul Anka or Neil Sedaka, remember), not groups (only Motown and Tamla in the U.S. were selling that kind of music).  The answer was no, no, NO!

So, even though Brian’s Beatles were getting plenty of gigs in the North of England for more money than ever before, even though they had a huge fanbase in their own hometown, he couldn’t get the establishment to get behind them.  (Does any of this sound familiar?) 

It would be nice to say at this point that George Martin at Parlephone Records heard the demo tape and instantly got on board, signing the Beatles to a recording contract, producing their first hit, “Love Me Do”, and becoming another huge fan of “the boys”.  It is true that George did eventually do all of that, but it wasn’t his first thought, or his idea.  He wasn’t impressed with them at first hearing, and initially said no.  Only some behind-the-scenes maneuvering within the recording giant EMI, having to do with internal politics, forced George to make the move that would forever tie him to the Beatles’ fortunes.  It may have been a marriage of convenience, but the two parties (and Brian, too) quickly grew to love each other.  Fate?  Or just plain stubborn will?

The lesson to be learned here is that everyone, no matter how talented, no matter how far they will eventually go, no matter what huge impact they will eventually have on the world, will meet obstacles on the way, potholes, bridges washed out, detours.  John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Brian Epstein refused to give up and drop off the road, no matter how many times they heard “No!”.  Likewise, J.K Rowling, Stephen King, Diana Gabaldon, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Jayne Ann Krentz didn’t give up when people told them no, even though it must have seemed no one would ever say yes. 

Maybe they’re just stubborn.  And, no doubt about it, that’s a good thing.

*A special word of thanks to my own personal “Brian”, my agent, Michelle Johnson, founder of Inklings Literary Agency, who has stubbornly endured her share of slammed doors on my behalf!  Thank you for believing in me, Michelle!

Cheers, Donna

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Should We Put a Shirt on It?

Are Readers Growing Disenchanted With Shirtless Heroes on SFR Book Covers?

It's long been the norm in Romance genres. That strapping duke baring his rippling abs on the cover of a Regency Romance. Mancake abounds in Western Romances about cowboys or sheriffs or rodeo heroes. Paranormal Romance offers its share of topless vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters and demons.

And erotica of any flavor?...fahgettaboutit! Often more than just the male leads' chest is bared.

Contemporary Romance probably accounts for the least amount of muscle-bound chests, because, well...hmmm. Why? Maybe because it's the closest romance we have to our own reality? A professional businessman or FBI agent or SEAL operative is not likely to be cavorting around shirtless while on the job.

And therein lies my question. Does half-naked imagery work for SFR? We've been debating this over on the SFR Brigade discussion group. The big question is: What really works for SFR?

Let's look at a few SFR cultural icons.

Han Solo is super sexy in those gamble-striped pants and utilitarian un-uniform shirt. Does he need to bare skin to render females into a state of awe? Heh. It appears not.

Captain Mal Reynolds often strode about the decks of Serenity in his space western gear covered in a full length brown duster (hence the nick, "Browncoat"). Female fans ate up his full-dressed, wise-cracking swagger. But what about his totally nude scene in the episode where the camera zooms in on a naked Mal seated on a rock muttering, "Yep....that went well." "Trash" is arguably one of the most popular Firefly episodes.

Let's go back to what many consider the root of SFR fans everywhere. We got an occasional glimpse of Captain James T. Kirk's manly manchest in some of the episodes of Star Trek: TOS but what image most often comes to mind when we hear the name? Is it him in his iconic gold uniform with the Starfleet emblem emblazoned on the chest, or shirtless and sweaty after a rough-and-tumble brawl on some nameless rock?

Captain Jean Luc Picard? Commander Will Riker? Worf? Do we ever picture them in our heads sans their uniform (or half of it, at least) or is the image we summon of the officers in full uniform?

And it doesn't always have to be a uniform, does it?

There are many occupations in the SFR universe--space pirate, transport fleet manager, interstellar corporate manager, asteroid miner, independent pilot, genius scientist, used spaceship salesmen--that doesn't require a uniform. Maybe they wear business attire. An environment suit. Jeans and polo shirt, or the futuristic equivalent. Do such heroes look unprofessional when pictured in locker room mode?

Let's put it to a vote!

Choose your favorite group of SFR/SF covers from the two groups below. Which do you think BEST represents the SFR genre? Do you prefer "THIS" Cover Group or "THAT" Cover Group for your SFR imagery? I'm not going to make this easy for you. These are some great covers! Be totally honest. There is no right or wrong answer. We're being scientific here.