Word Count Spreadsheet

Improving Our Word Count Spreadsheet

In the last post, I went over the basics of creating a simple word count spreadsheet. If you're not familiar with spreadsheets, it's a good place to start. As simple as the spreadsheet is, it provides a foundation for other improvements. Recording the data is only the first step. With the improvements to the word count spreadsheet in this post, we'll start to see how it can be used to provide more information about our writing.

Level Up the Word Count Spreadsheet

I'm going to pick up with the word count spreadsheet created in the last post. Right now it makes it easy to enter the ending word count after each session and it calculates the finished words written. If you wrote 250 words and deleted 200 of them, it will only show 50 words written because that was your net gain. It could even be negative if you went back and deleted words previously written! I'm focused on progress each day, so that's fine.

Still, the spreadsheet doesn't show me more information. If I have multiple projects, I can't see totals for each without going through the list. It doesn't tell me how many words are written on average. It won't track streaks. And it doesn't have any information except the title of the project. If I want to use the word count spreadsheet to gain insights about my productivity, then I need to make some changes.

I'm using the current version of Excel to create this word count spreadsheet. You can do many of the same things in other products, but the commands will be different.

Format as Table

Here's a tip to spruce up your word count spreadsheet—and add great functionality at the same time!

First, click on one of the cells where you've put in information, such as the title or word count. Next, up on the Home tab of the ribbon (the bar with the icons at the top of Excel), in the Styles section, click the Format as Table button.

A drop-down panel will give you options to pick for formatting your word count spreadsheet. Pick the scheme you like by clicking it. Excel will automatically select the information you've entered. Make sure the box is checked that says “My table has headers” and click OK.

Just like that, Excel formats your spreadsheet! This is called a table in Excel.

Even better, when you add the next entry in the row underneath, it will automatically extend the table to include the new information. You can keep adding rows simply by typing in new entries—just don't skip rows! It'll also automatically copy formulas to the new row.

Excel Format as Table<img class=”tve_image wp-image-1027 jetpack-lazy-image–handled” alt=”Excel Format as Table Word Count Spreadsheet” width=”189″ height=”130″ title=”Excel Format as Table” data-id=”1027″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel-format-table.jpg” data-lazy-loaded=”1″><img class=”tve_image wp-image-1027″ alt=”Excel Format as Table Word Count Spreadsheet” width=”189″ height=”130″ title=”Excel Format as Table” data-id=”1027″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel-format-table.jpg”>Excel Formatted Word Count Spreadsheet<img class=”tve_image wp-image-1028 jetpack-lazy-image–handled” alt=”Excel Formatted Word Count Spreadsheet” width=”435″ height=”342″ title=”Excel Formatted Word Count Spreadsheet” data-id=”1028″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel-formatted.jpg” data-lazy-loaded=”1″><img class=”tve_image wp-image-1028″ alt=”Excel Formatted Word Count Spreadsheet” width=”435″ height=”342″ title=”Excel Formatted Word Count Spreadsheet” data-id=”1028″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel-formatted.jpg”>

Totally Your Table

Okay, now we have a table in our word count spreadsheet. Other than adding some formatting, what good is this?

To start, we can add some additional features to make the table more interesting. Let's start by adding a total at the bottom of the word count column. All we have to do is click on the Table Tools Design tab on the ribbon. Right in the middle is a section called “Table Style Options.” Check the Total Row box.

Excel automatically adds a total row to the bottom of the table and adds a formula totaling the Words column for us. If we don't want to see it anymore (say we want to add a new entry), we can uncheck the box to hide the total row. After we add our entry we can check the box again to bring it back.


If you don't see the tab for the table on the ribbon, click on any of the cells in the table and the tab should show up.

Dark Matters Cover<img class=”tve_image wp-image-751 jetpack-lazy-image–handled” alt=”Write Faster T-Shirt” width=”466″ height=”460″ title=”writefaster” data-id=”751″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/writefaster.jpg” style=”width: 100%;” data-lazy-loaded=”1″><img class=”tve_image wp-image-751″ alt=”Write Faster T-Shirt” width=”466″ height=”460″ title=”writefaster” data-id=”751″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/writefaster.jpg” style=”width: 100%;”>

Filtering Your Word Count Table

You may have noticed the arrow buttons in your top row with the headings. Those buttons allow you to filter what shows in your table. You can use them to show only the current month or other date ranges. You can filter to just the project that you want to see. Combined with the total row, this gives you an easy way to see how many words you've written within a given time period or on different projects.

The filters give you different options. If Excel detects that the column contains dates, you'll see that it has a variety of predefined filters, e.g., choose “This Week” to see only items from the current week. Or “Last Week” to see entries from the previous week.

When you filter a column the other items are hidden from view—but you can clear the filter or change it at any point to see other items. That means you never have to see a big list of entries. You could set the date filter to this week and add items as you write. When the week passes it will show the current week as if there are no entries until you add more, but the whole time all of your previous entries are safe.

If you turn on the total row, it will show you the total for only those items showing.

Just like the date column, the Project column filter allows you to filter by the contents of that column. Instead of Date filters it will show Text filters. Either way there is also a search box in the dropdown and a treeview you can use to display and uncheck or check different entries. 

Excel Table Filters<img class=”tve_image wp-image-1034 jetpack-lazy-image–handled” alt=”Excel Table Filters” width=”450″ height=”846″ title=”Excel Table Filters” data-id=”1034″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Screenshot-2018-04-11-16.00.02.png” style=”width: 100%;” data-lazy-loaded=”1″><img class=”tve_image wp-image-1034″ alt=”Excel Table Filters” width=”450″ height=”846″ title=”Excel Table Filters” data-id=”1034″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Screenshot-2018-04-11-16.00.02.png” style=”width: 100%;”>

Average Word Counts

I want to show one more thing for this post. There's still many more ways we can enhance the word count spreadsheet, but I'll do another post for the next step. First, I want to revisit that total line at the bottom of the table. Turn it on and click the that adds up the total words written (for the displayed entries). In the formula bar above the column headings, you can see the formula used to calculate the total.


The formula uses the subtotal function. A function allows Excel to perform various types of calculations and other operations on the data entered into the cells. Subtotal can perform different actions depending on the function number, e.g. 109 in this case, which is a SUM function, meaning it will add up the items in the [Words] column. We didn't have to write the formula because Excel automatically created it when we turned on the total row the first time.

You may notice that the total cell also has a dropdown arrow button on the right side. If you click that it will open a menu of other functions you can use instead. I'm going to click “Average.”

Excel Table Average<img class=”tve_image wp-image-1037 jetpack-lazy-image–handled” alt=”Excel Table Average” width=”482″ height=”398″ title=”Excel Table Average” data-id=”1037″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel-table-avg.jpg” style=”width: 100%;” data-lazy-loaded=”1″><img class=”tve_image wp-image-1037″ alt=”Excel Table Average” width=”482″ height=”398″ title=”Excel Table Average” data-id=”1037″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel-table-avg.jpg” style=”width: 100%;”>

Now, instead of showing the total word count, it shows the average word count which tells me that I've written 505 words on average per day. By clicking the dropdown arrow button again and picking SUM, it will change back to the total. You'll see that you have other functions available. You can also write your own formulas to use in the total row. 

One more tip: If you want the name of the row to be something other than “Total,” just click in that cell and type what you want it to say. Since I want my word count spreadsheet to show the average words written, I'll change that to Average. Excel remembers your changes, so you can still turn the total row on and off.

Next Level Word Count Spreadsheet

You can think of each of these posts as quests. This series of quests started with a look at streaks, moved on to spreadsheet basics, and now we've added formatting, filtering, and totals or averages to our tracker. It's very functional right now. We haven't maxed out the level yet! We can add even more functionality to the spreadsheet to give us greater insight into our writing and productivity. Check back for the next post. You're also welcome to sign up for my newsletter to find out when I post more content to help you in your publishing journey as a writer with a day job (or even if you don't have a day job).

Tracking Word Counts

Tracking Word Counts Even If You’re Not Familiar With Spreadsheets

I love data and data tools. Some of my fellow librarians find this amusing—and useful! I find data very useful. This isn't usually considered odd in athletic pursuits. People routinely track and discuss data about their favorite sports teams. If you're a runner you probably know how far, how long, and at what pace you ran. There's a good chance you track that information. Wearable tech has made it easier than ever to track our athletic efforts, visualize the data, and inform our attempts to improve. In my last post, I talked about the power of streaks. Today, I want to share some tips on using simple spreadsheets for tracking your word counts.

Tracking Word Counts Simply

I'll start simply. You can use whatever spreadsheet program you prefer. If you haven't used any, Microsoft Excel and Google's Sheets are both good options. I'm going to use the desktop version of Excel and keep this simple to start. I'll walk through creating a simple spreadsheet and then mention some ways that it could be enhanced.

Spreadsheet Basics

Don't be intimidated by a spreadsheet. It can do so much work for you and can be used in lots of different ways to help you with your writing. A spreadsheet can help improve productivity. It has numerous business uses. And you can use it as tool in your creative process as well. I'm going to focus on tracking word counts, but many of the points covered can be used in other ways.

Here's a blank spreadsheet in Excel (Office 365, current version):

Blank Excel Spreadsheet<img class=”tve_image wp-image-1004 jetpack-lazy-image–handled” alt=”Blank Excel Spreadsheet” width=”1024″ height=”627″ title=”Blank Excel Spreadsheet” data-id=”1004″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel_blank-1024×627.jpg” data-lazy-loaded=”1″>&amp;lt;img class=”tve_image wp-image-1004″ alt=”Blank Excel Spreadsheet” width=”1024″ height=”627″ title=”Blank Excel Spreadsheet” data-id=”1004″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel_blank-1024×627.jpg”&amp;gt;

The spreadsheet contains a bunch of boxes known as cells, defined by the rows (numbered down the left side), and the columns (letters across the top). You can click in any cell and type text or numbers. The spreadsheet has a bunch of ways to format the cells, to change the size, and do math based on the cell contents. We're going to start small and add functionality.

What should we track?

Okay, so we want to track word counts. What do we need to know in order to track word counts? It's up to you, but I'd want to know a few details.

  • Date. When did I write the words?
  • Project. What project was I working on? I usually have several projects going at once between stories and novels.
  • Words. How many words did I write? This one could be done in a few different ways. We could track just the number of words written and figure that out myself. I usually like the spreadsheet to calculate that for me.

That's enough for now! Let's get started on creating the spreadsheet. I'm going to click in the top left cell, in row one, column A. The address of this cell is A1. I'm going to type some headings, one per column for each of the things I want to track. The end result should look something like the picture on the right.

Excel Headings<img class=”tve_image wp-image-1006 jetpack-lazy-image–handled” alt=”Excel Headings” width=”463″ height=”280″ title=”Excel Headings” data-id=”1006″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel_headings.jpg” data-lazy-loaded=”1″>&amp;lt;img class=”tve_image wp-image-1006″ alt=”Excel Headings” width=”463″ height=”280″ title=”Excel Headings” data-id=”1006″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel_headings.jpg”&amp;gt;

Entering word counts

Now all I have to do to track my word counts is type the details about each writing session in the cells below the headings.

Excel automatically formats information you type. So when I typed “4/5” in cell A2 and pressed the TAB key (moves the selection box to the next cell, ENTER will move it down one cell), Excel reformatted the date. 

Under Project, I typed “Untitled Short Story” and it looks like it is cut off. It's all in the cell still, but because the word count cell has a number in it, the full project title doesn't show. 

We can change the formatting in different ways to change the way Excel displays the information. There are different ways to change the formats. I'm not going to go into them all (and they may differ depending on what you are using). 

I do want to change the date format. To do that, I'm going to click in the first cell, hold down the mouse button and drag down to the last cell.

On the ribbon (the bar at the top with the icons and commands), I'll click in the dropdown list that currently says “Custom” and choose “Short Date” instead. There are many other formats available, but I like this one.

Next, I'll format the word counts. I want a comma in the thousandth place. I'll select the word counts and right under the dropdown list, click the icon with a comma. Then, with the entries still selected, I'll click the decrease decimal icon (to the right of the comma) twice. I don't want to show any decimal places in my word counts.

All of this is just setup. Once we have our spreadsheet ready we won't have to mess with the format again unless we want to change things.

I do want to see the entire title. To do that, I want to make column B wider. All I need to do is a double-click on the line between “B” and “C” and the column will automatically fit the length of the title. I can repeat that later if I have a longer title.

At a very basic level, that's all that is needed! I can track my word counts now. There's much more that I could do with the spreadsheet to improve how it works.

Excel Data Entry Tracking Word Counts<img class=”tve_image wp-image-1008 jetpack-lazy-image–handled” alt=”Excel Data Entry Tracking Word Counts” width=”376″ height=”328″ title=”Excel Data Entry” data-id=”1008″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel_data.jpg” data-lazy-loaded=”1″>&amp;lt;img class=”tve_image wp-image-1008″ alt=”Excel Data Entry Tracking Word Counts” width=”376″ height=”328″ title=”Excel Data Entry” data-id=”1008″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel_data.jpg”&amp;gt;Excel Date Format<img class=”tve_image wp-image-1009 jetpack-lazy-image–handled” alt=”Excel Date Format” width=”382″ height=”630″ title=”Excel Date Format” data-id=”1009″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel-date-format.jpg” data-lazy-loaded=”1″>&amp;lt;img class=”tve_image wp-image-1009″ alt=”Excel Date Format” width=”382″ height=”630″ title=”Excel Date Format” data-id=”1009″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel-date-format.jpg”&amp;gt;

Improving Our Tracking Spreadsheet

The first thing I want to do is have the spreadsheet calculate the number of words written. I'm going to do this by replacing the word count column with a starting count, an ending count, and let the spreadsheet figure the words written. I'll right-click on the column letter “C” and choose Insert to create a new column “C.” My column with the heading “Words” will move over and become “D.” I'll repeat this to add one more column.

That gives me two columns without headings, so I'll type “Start” and “End” on row one in the new “C” and “D” columns (“Words” is now column “E”).

As I did the last time, I'll format those cells with the comma icon and remove the decimals (I don't have to have anything typed to set the format). Now, instead of entering the total words, I'll enter the starting word count and the total word count when I stop writing—which I can easily find out in whatever program I'm using to write.

Creating Our First Formula

Let's create a formula so that Excel calculates the difference between the start and end counts in each cell. In cell E2, I'll type +D2-C2 and press ENTER. As I do, Excel highlights the cells included in the formula. When I press ENTER the formula disappears, replaced by the answer!

If you look in the address bar just above the column headings, you'll see the formula as we typed it except it starts with an “=” equal sign. You can start a formula by typing “=” and for some formulas that's necessary. In this case Excel understood we were writing a formula from the “+” symbol and added the equal sign on its own.

Now that I have the formula in one cell, all I have to do is click and drag down on the square box in the lower right corner of E2. The mouse pointer will change to a cross symbol and when you let go after selecting all the rows, Excel fills the cells with the formula! Except it has adjusted the formula addresses to match each row number. 

Excel Tracking Word Counts Formula<img class=”tve_image wp-image-1013 jetpack-lazy-image–handled” alt=”Excel Tracking Word Counts Formula” width=”470″ height=”329″ title=”Excel Tracking Word Counts Formula” data-id=”1013″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel-formula.jpg” data-lazy-loaded=”1″>&amp;lt;img class=”tve_image wp-image-1013″ alt=”Excel Tracking Word Counts Formula” width=”470″ height=”329″ title=”Excel Tracking Word Counts Formula” data-id=”1013″ src=”//ryanmwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/excel-formula.jpg”&amp;gt;

Next Steps in Tracking Word Counts

This simple spreadsheet is only the start for tracking word counts. We can add to it so that Excel automatically formats our spreadsheet, calculates totals, average word counts, writing streaks, and much more! That's for another post. If you have questions, ask in the comments.

I'll also point out (being a librarian), that many libraries offer courses such as Lynda.com and Microsoft Imagine Academy which can help you achieve mastery of Excel and other programs. In our library we also offer the opportunity for people to take the Microsoft certification tests for free! 

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Novel Openings

How to Craft Effective Novel Openings (Even in the Middle of Your Book)

Well-written novel openings draw readers right into the story—and the really good ones convince readers to put aside whatever else they are doing!

Way back in 1993 we were packing up to move. I'd taken on the task of boxing up books (a much bigger task now). This involved sitting on the floor as I packed books into cardboard boxes. In the middle of this, I came across Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King. I hadn't had a chance to read it yet, so I decided to take a peek. I opened the book and I began to read.

What did you ask, Andy Bisette? Do I “understand these rights as you've explained em to me”?

I didn't stop reading until I finished the book. This isn't as long as some of his books, but still. Instead of packing books into boxes so we could get moved—and we really wanted to get out of that place—I sat there and read the whole book! Effective openings have that kind of power. It isn't just the first page of the book either. Great novel openings show up at scene and chapter breaks too. They reel you in past all good sense.


Traits of Killer Novel Openings

Novel openings that pull in readers succeed by engaging the reader in different ways.

  • Voice or language. The opening might use language, or a character voice that captures the reader's interest. In that first line of Dolores Claiborne her voice stands out. As the opening moves into the next paragraph it continues in her voice as well as bringing in sensory details.
  • Sensory details. Engaging the reader's senses is a powerful way to drop someone into the novel, especially when you engage all five senses.

She woke in the dark. Through the slats on the window shades, the first murky hint of dawn slipped, slanting shadowy bars over the bed. It was like waking in a cell. – Naked in Death by J.D. Robb

Novel Openings example

The J.D. Robb opening engages senses right in the first line and it also conveys the character's opinions of what she senses with words like ‘murky,' ‘shadowy bars,' and comparing it to waking in a cell. The opening is also effective at creating interest.

  • Create Interest. Effective novel openings also generate interest. They raise questions in the reader's mind about the character, the setting, and the situation.

The body lay naked and facedown, a deathly gray, spatters of blood staining the snow around it. It was minus fifteen degrees Celsius and a storm had passed just hours before. The snow stretched smooth in the wan sunrise, only a few tracks leading into a nearby ice-block building. A tavern. Or what passed for a tavern in this town. — Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

This opening raises questions right away about the body in the snow and the dispassionate character observing the body, noting details. Opinion comes into the sensory details as well, about the tavern. The next paragraph answers some of the questions and raises even more.

Openings Throughout Your Novel

We might just focus on openings when they occur at the beginning of the novel, but that would be a mistake. Each time there is a scene or chapter break, there is an opportunity to create another opening to draw the reader onward and deeper.

When Hodges returns to his chair with his small bundle of mail, the fight-show host is saying goodbye and promising his TV Land audience that tomorrow there will be midgets. Whether of the physical or mental variety he does not specify.— Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

The previous chapter ended with the note that even though Hodges doesn't get anything interesting in the mail, he's going to get it anyway. This opening grounds the reader right back in that moment. We've cut ahead, but only so far as Hodges getting back to his chair with the mail. It's still that moment even with the small jump in time. As the chapter moves into the next paragraph King provides sensory details, voice, and creates interest. The tension remains even though Hodges is looking at his mail.

Practicing Openings

A musician practices. Maybe trying to get fingering right at the start or practicing a new chord. Later, the musician practices songs and more advanced techniques. If they are also a songwriter or composer, they may try creating their own work too, but they continue to practice. Every performance, each recording, is more practice.

Writers do the same thing whether we realize it or not. Practicing mindfulness around our writing, realizing that we do practice, and deciding what we want to practice can help us grow and develop as writers. There are a couple techniques that you can try to improve your practice and improve your novel openings.

Deliberate Practice

Decide what you want to practice with each project. If you want to improve openings, note your intention to do so before you start. Leave that intent in the back of your mind and focus on writing. When you cycle back around, take a look at your openings whether at the beginning or at other points in the project. Have you included a strong voice or language? Sensory details that include the character's voice and opinion? Does the opening create interest?

You can also practice writing better openings by studying how other writers have written their openings.

Writer T-Shirt

Playing Other Writer's Openings

Just as a musician can practice by playing songs written by other musicians, writers can practice by typing other writer's work. To be perfectly clear, I'm not suggesting that you copy another writer's work and pass it off as your own! I'm talking about practice.

Sit down with a book you've enjoyed. Open whatever program you use to write (or notebook, or recorder) and type in the openings from the book. Go 2-3 paragraphs into each opening and then skip on ahead to the next scene break or the next chapter break.

Artificial intelligences, neural networks, learn by taking in data. “More input!” as Number 5 would say.

Our brains work the same way. Practice in this sense, physically typing in the work into your familiar instrument, teaches the techniques used. Don't bother saving the document when you're done. There's no need. Think of it just like a musician that decides to try playing a favorite song, or more specifically, certain parts of a song in order to learn something. By typing in the novel openings, you're teaching your neural network techniques.

Making a Practice Habit

This blog focuses on having a writing and publishing business while working full-time at another career. With everything else going on, how do you find time to practice? As with anything, focus helps.

If you're using RescueTime, you can set goals and alerts. You can integrate with Zapier to connect it to other tools that you use. Your practice session doesn't need to be long. Take a 10-minute break at work to practice openings. Pick some times and set a reminder, add it to your calendar, or just have the book on hand for the unexpected break.

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Science Fiction Cover Design

How to Design an Out of This World Science Fiction Cover

I need a new science fiction cover for my book Dark Matters. The last cover didn't work—my artwork probably had something to do with that, along with other factors. I'm working on new editions of my books (including brand new titles never released), and this time I want to create covers that invite readers to pick up the books. There are certain key elements that I want to look at before finalizing my new covers.


Doing My Science Fiction Cover Research

Much like I did with researching cozy mystery covers, I researched science fiction covers on current best selling titles. I followed essentially the same process, just looking at science fiction on Amazon instead to get a sense of what works today.

The straight best sellers lists contain a mix of different genres of science fiction and fantasy. It's worth taking a look to get an overall sense. After that, I took a look at the specific subgenres that I might want to target for my book.

What is Dark Matters?

It features Brock Marsden, a detective who uses Galactic technology to combine alien DNA with his own in order to gain new abilities that help him solve crimes. He's a member of the Moreau Society, a group of people who share their experiments with individual genetic modification. Brock investigates the murder of a young woman, leading him into darker corners of Olindan society.

Other worlds, advanced technology, a multitude of aliens, and an engaging cast of characters, Dark Matters might fit the Genetic Engineering category,Hard Science Fiction, or Adventure.

Science Fiction Covers

Elements of Successful Science Fiction Covers

Certain common elements stand out while looking over the lists.

  1. Covers are colorful.
  2. Covers tend to have large, decorative fonts, particularly for titles.
  3. Fonts have a ‘science fiction' feel and may also have various effects e.g. glowing, multi-colored, transparency, etc.
  4. Covers use Illustrations more than photos, many don't focus on people, using landscapes or more symbolic images. People are often small, silhouetted, or otherwise deemphasized.
  5. Spaceships are not required.

Putting Together a Science Fiction Cover

Taking my notes and ideas about the novel, I've selected artwork and put together a new cover which I think is much more effective than my previous attempts.

The design is simple and clean, and clearly conveys a science fiction feel. It works well with the book. It'll be interesting to see how this new cover works with readers.

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cozy artwork featured

Creating a Cozy Mystery Cover Part 2

I need cozy artwork, images that suggest a cozy mystery experience for my novel The Task of Auntie Dido. In my previous posts, I talked about researching cozy mystery covers, and my process for creating the Kindle cover. This time I'm talking about the process I followed to select and use artwork for the cover.


Cozy Artwork, DIY vs. Buy?

I want to have my own artwork on the covers of my books. The trouble is, that has held me back from sharing my work. I think many indie authors will choose to have someone else design their covers, working with the designer to come up with a professional and effective cover. That is the smart way to go!

There's a good argument for focusing on writing, and working with other people on things like covers. Trying to do it all myself has slowed my progress and has contributed to making it hard for people to find my books. I know this. I also know that I enjoy learning about design, art, typography and all the rest. That said, I've decided that I need to compromise if I'm going to get my books. I'll put the covers together, but will use artwork created by other artists (for now). I still want to create original artwork but that is the piece that has held things up.

Finding Artwork

I turned to Dreamstime.com for cozy artwork. They offer a number of credit or subscription plans that can be used to download artwork. The subscriptions generally offer a better deal and allow you to download the images at whatever resolution you desire. Dreamstime also uses a royalty-free license that works well for e-books and print books.

In my previous post, I talked about my plan to use silhouetted figures on the cover. Since I decided to purchase rather than create the figures, I started my search looking for vector silhouettes of an old woman and a cat.

There are  a lot of results. It is worth the time to explore, check out related or similar images, and consider what will work for the cover.

cozy artwork

Choosing Cozy Artwork

I ended up selecting two sets of vectors, one for each. Since these are sets, it meant that I had different poses to experiment with and can use others with other stories. After adding the figures, I still felt like the cover needed something more. I ended up downloading a third image of a Victorian house, which I added behind the orange overlay and applied effects to give it some texture.

Final Touches

I like this new cover much better than the one that I created for the first edition of the book several years ago. It will be interesting to see if readers respond to the cover. I think it fits well with the elements that I noted when looking at other cozy covers. I have a few things to do with the interior files but I hope to have it finished and available by the end of the week.

Next up? Designing Science Fiction Covers. I have plans for a new edition of Dark Matters and for a brand new release, Stowaway to Eternity.

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C. Auguste Dupin expects simple things out of his day. A sunny spot beside the fountain to nap. His tuna delivered at precisely the right time by librarian Penny Copper. He didn’t expect someone to stuff bodies in the book returns and disrupt his entire day!

The only thing left to do? Apply his considerable intellect to the task of identifying the killer while guiding Penny to the answer.

Covers design

Creating a Cozy Mystery Cover

I already covered researching a cozy mystery cover and gave the example of changes I made to The Murders in the Reed Moore Library. Now I'll go through the steps I follow to create a brand new cover for my C. Auguste Dupin novel, The Task of Auntie Dido.


Illustrating a Book Cover

I'm using Adobe Illustrator CC for this project, but this isn't going to turn into an Illustrator tutorial. You could use any program that allows you to use text and images together and export the result to a suitable image format for your ebook.

I'll also start out focusing on the Amazon Kindle guidelines and compare those to guidelines on other sites.

Image Size

For Kindle, the recommended image size is 2,560 x 1,600 pixels. I'll use those dimensions and save it as a preset in Illustrator for future projects. This ensures that I get the dimensions right for my project. Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) offers extensive help for details on each stage of the project.

KDP ebook Cover preset


I want to use the same fonts that I used for the first story. I'll open that file and copy over the text to my new project. That way I have everything the same for the new project, lending to a consistent sort of branding for the new title.

So here's the interesting thing: I hadn't made sure that the cover image for the previous ebook was the recommended image size! When I copied and pasted the text it was much too small! That meant spending more time adjusting the typography to get the sizes right. With the CC library I can save elements, which is another way to move artwork, colors, or other items between projects.


I used black, white, and red in the last cover. I'd like to keep some of those, but I want to try out other colors for some of the elements in the book. A cozy mystery cover tends to feature bright colors. I have some ideas for colors to try out.

In my Illustrator document I have the text on one layer and a background layer with a filled rectangle set to black. I've locked both and created a layer in between that I will use for the illustration. I'm going to start with another filled rectangle to test out colors.

I considered different possible colors and ended up with an orange color that I like. I add a gradient effect so the color becomes lighter near the top of the book.

Cozy Mystery Cover Gradient

Iconic Illustration

With the previous title, I used a simple silhouette of a cat in front of a book to capture key elements of the story. For this title I want to do something similar, except I think that I want silhouettes of an older woman and a cat on the cover. The quickest way to do that would be to purchase the artwork. In this case, I'd like to take a stab at it myself and see what I can come up with on my own.

Cover Designs

How to Research Cover Designs For a Cozy Mystery

Effective cover designs entice us to pick up books. Good cover designs tell us what kind of experience we can expect from the book—before we even read any text on the cover. I talked about the importance of cover design in my post on releasing books fast. I want to relaunch my cozy mystery The Task of Auntie Dido, and in this post I'm going to walk through my research process.


Searching Amazon

I plan to do my research quickly, which means I'm going to go straight to the largest bookstore. I'm going to pop over to smile.amazon.com (I have it set to support the Freedom to Read Foundation), choose “Books” in the search drop-down, and search for cozy mysteries.

Amazon book search

Search Results

The first thing I do? Scroll down the page and take in the overall sense of the designs and identify the key sections that I want to focus on.


I want to dig deeper into the category section as I research covers and check out sub-categories that might fit my book better than the general search results.

My series features a cat, C. Auguste Dupin and his librarian, Penny Copper. They first appeared in The Murders in the Reed Moore Library (available as a free download).

eBook CoverDownload FREE book

While I research covers for my novel, I'm also thinking about this cover and whether or not it works effectively.

Sponsored listings

Cozy Mystery search results

The first results showing are sponsored listings. It's interesting to look at these from a marketing perspective.

Goodreads popular titles

The popular titles from Goodreads is interesting as they give a perspective on what readers expect to see in a ‘cozy mystery' title.

Results list

Finally we get to the results list. On my first pass I'm looking at the covers. I want a broad perspective so I'm not focusing on details at this point. I want to take in the look and feel of books in this category. A few books catch my eye, but I'm not stopping to focus on any particular book. I don't want to copy a design!

The next page starts with a couple more sponsored titles, then back to the results again.

Initial Thoughts

After scanning several pages, it's clear that many of the titles share certain things in their cover designs.

  • Illustrated covers. Many (not all) of the covers feature an illustration ranging from cartoony and vector-art illustrations to pastoral paintings.
  • Cats feature on the covers of many of the titles (as do books and libraries!)
  • Fonts tend to be serif fonts or decorative fonts with a few sans serif fonts showing up.
  • Titles are usually large, using multiple words and different font sizes or treatments.
    • Many titles feature puns, word play, references to death or mystery.
  • Author names tend to be smaller and use a less decorative font.
  • Most covers feature bright colors
Apple drizzled with honey

5 Ways to Draw Readers Into Your Story or Novel

“The air in the shop smelled of talcum, resin, and tissue, with a faint, almost indefinable undertone of pine and acid-free paper.” (“There is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold” by Seanan McGuire)


Sensory details draw readers into your story or novel. Evoking one's sense of smell is one of the most potent ways to do this. Scents tie us to our memories and create a powerful sense of place. An opening of a story should draw the reader in and anchor them in the story. Scents can also substitute for taste, think of the smell of sugar when someone opens a box of fresh donuts. Or the way overripe apples smell almost like cider late in the season as they drop from the trees to rot among the grass.

“Humans called it the Medusa. Its long twisted ribbons of gas strayed across fifty parsecs, glowing blue, yellow, and carmine. Its central core was a ghoulish green flecked with watery black.” (“Hardfought” by Greg Bear)


As surprising as it might be, sometimes we forget to include sight in our story. Our characters appear, converse, and interact without any word of where they are located. Sensory details emerge through the character. All of the senses, including sight, are interpreted by the character. Your characters will notice different things about the setting and have different opinions about it. In the “Hardfought” opening, Bear shows the characters opinion even before naming the character by describing the nebula as “ghoulish green” and “watery black.” In the next paragraph, introducing the character Prufrax describes the nebula further as “malevolent” and goes on revealing character details. This not only draws the reader into the story, it also reveals character details.

“Rinna Sen paced backstage, tucking her mittened hands deep into the pockets of her parka. The sound of instruments squawking to life cut through the curtains screening the front of the theater: the sharp cry of a piccolo, the heavy thump of tympani, the whisper and saw of forty violins warming up.” (“Ice in D Minor” by Anthea Sharp)


Sounds convey so much of the character's experience to the reader and provide another powerful way to anchor the reader in the story. In Anthea Sharp's story, the contrast in the first line with the second is interesting and tells us something is different about this scene. The sounds of the orchestra immediately provide a sense of place and tell us the character's view of the instruments. It also reveals that the character knows each of the instruments.

Often sound is coupled with other senses. Or the absence of sound can reveal details about the setting and the character. As with the other senses, it all flows from the character. To one character the buzzing of the fluorescent lights in the office ceiling, the flickering of a dying bulb, might drive them batty. The other person in the office doesn't notice the buzzing of the lights but does notice how the person sharing the office is always snacking on M&Ms, making smacking noises that drive them crazy.

“When he was very young, he waved his arms, gnashed the teeth of his massive jaws, and tromped around the house so that the dishes trembled in the china cabinet.” (“Dinosaur” by Bruce Holland Rogers)


Touch adds an additional sense of being physically present in the setting. It gives the character solidity. The character lives in the environment—they aren't a disembodied bundle of cameras, microphones, and other sensors. Touch links us to the character and setting. It's also overlooked. It might seem unlikely, how do you miss a sense of touch? Suppose that you write, ‘John picked out an apple from the basket'. There are no specific details in that description. It isn't filtered through the character's sense of touch, or opinions. ‘John plucked an apple from the basket, the skin giving beneath the gentle pressure of his fingers to reveal the worm-blasted rot inside.' Or, ‘John selected an apple from the basket and relished the crisp firmness ripe with juicy potential.' Two different experiences, sensations, and opinions of the apple.

“Cat waited for a moment as she stepped into the bakery, the bell dangling from the door announcing her arrival. Trays of baked goods surrounded her. Silver trays with goodies packed to the edge—baklava, chocolate sponge cake layers held by ganache and lemon cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, the lemon filling betrayed by the dollop of neon-yellow filling on the center right on top.” (“True Calling” by Irette Y. Patterson)


Patterson's opening evokes several senses. It also evokes a sense of taste simply from the description of the baked goods. The character pays attention to the pastries. She knows what they are and there's a sense of relish as she takes it in. Although the scents aren't explicitly mentioned, the description evokes the scents of sugar and lemon. Some words have a strong association with scents and taste. The two often go together. In this case, it's enough to make the mouth water. As the opening continues, the sense of taste is further utilized to ground the reader and develop the character.

Taste is one of the senses—like a sense smell—that has strong associations with memory. We associate tastes with events and times in our life. A character's sense of taste can also link them back to memories and gives the character a feeling of reality outside of the page. They came from somewhere. They didn't just start on the page.

Evoking All Five Senses Every 500 Words

Author Dean Wesley Smith recommends hitting all five senses quickly in each opening, whether the start of a story or a scene opening and again every 500 words. It grounds the reader and keeps them in the story. This is an area of craft that I plan to practice as I write my weekly stories. I also plan to go back to familiar stories and look at how the author used the senses in their stories.

Who Does This Very Well?

What writer, story, or book engaged your senses? Share your thoughts in the comments below.



Why you should let your computer read your novel

Self-editing a novel or story presents challenges for many writers. It is very easy to read past mistakes, especially when you are very familiar with your work. Listening to your work read aloud can help.

Why You Shouldn't Read Your Novel Aloud Yourself

You could read your novel or story aloud yourself to try and catch errors. It can help, but I don't recommend it. There are a couple issues with reading aloud yourself.

  1. Your familiarity with the story can still lead you to read past errors.
  2. When you focus on reading the text out loud your attention is split. You're trying read the words and also looking for mistakes. If you're looking for small errors like typos you might miss larger issues such as whether the sentence or paragraph makes sense. Focusing on the story while you read can lead to missing mistakes.

You could also ask someone else to read your story to you. I don't recommend that either. It might be very annoying for your reader if you're having to stop them and ask questions. Plus they're also likely to skip errors, unconsciously make corrections, or focus too much on looking for mistakes.

Fortunately, there is an easier (free) option.

Let Your Computer Read Your Novel to You

Most modern computers, tablets, or phones have text-to-speech options. That is, the device can read selected text to you with a synthesized voice. This key feature for accessibility also turns out especially useful for writers looking to self-edit their work.

  1. The device reads the text, one word at a time, as it was written. A spell-check won't catch it if you used the wrong word. Grammar checkers, such as Grammarly can prove very useful to highlight text with potential issues. It's another useful tool for writers self-editing. That's still different than your device reading each word of the text.
  2. The voices available don't sound human. They don't add emotional inflection to the text as they read. This makes it much easier to hear what is actually written.
  3. Easier to focus your attention. Since you aren't having to read the text, you can focus exclusively on listening for problems.

Since it is likely already available, it's just a question of how to turn it on and use it.

Editing Along With Your Computer's Reading

So how do I use this for editing? I open a Word version of the document, select a section, and click the Read Aloud button. (Check out my notes below for steps to enable text-to-speech options on your device.) I follow along as the computer reads, making corrections as needed. The control bar allows you to pause/play, and change settings, such as voices and playback speed. Do keep in mind that the software may also mispronounce words, particularly those you've made up for your latest alien language!

This still takes focused attention. Take breaks if you think your attention is going to drift from really listening to what the computer is saying. Sometimes you'll find that your eyes scanning the manuscript have skipped right over an issue and the computer's reading will catch your attention. If you need to stop and come back later, just make a note of where you left off.

What Other Self-Editing Tips Do You Have?

Are there other things that you do when editing your manuscripts? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Read on for tips on getting text-to-speech set up on your device.

How to Get Your Windows 10 Computer to Read to You

Quick Access toolbar

You have a few different options to get your computer to read documents aloud.

  1. Read Aloud in Microsoft Word. Add it to the Quick Access toolbar at the top of Word, then just select the text you want it to read and click the button.
  2. The Narrator (press Windows logo key  + Ctrl + Enter to start) provides many accessibility options. To read your manuscript aloud, start Narrator and then press Capslock + M to have the computer begin reading it back. Press ESC when you want it to stop.

Commercial text-to-speech options include programs like Dragon's NaturallySpeaking, NaturalReader, or free programs such as Balabolka. If you want to save audio files you'll want to use software that can create the file. I haven't done that because I'm typically going through the manuscript making corrections as the computer reads. You might also be interested in other software if you want to use text-to-speech in many different applications, or you simply want better voices.

How to Get Your Chromebook to Read to You

Chromebooks have a built-in screen reader and a select-to-speak option. Once enabled in the advanced settings accessibility section, users can hold the search button, select text, and have it read aloud. Another option is using a web-based service such as NaturalReader's online version, where you upload or paste your document.

How to Get Your macOS to Read to You

As with other platforms, macOS offers text-to-speech options under System Preferences > Accessibility > Speech. After enabling the option, select text and use the option+esc key to have it read aloud. Apple users interested in a commercial program may want to look at GhostReader. As a PC user, I lack experience with the macOS. If you do use text-to-speech on an Apple device, please share your experiences in the comments.

How to Get Your Phone or Tablet to Read to You

Just like computers, phones also offer text-to-speech capabilities designed with accessibility in mind (whether that's implemented effectively is another question). On Android, go to Settings > Language & Input > Text to turn on the option. On iOS, Settings > General > Accessibility, Speak Selection.

Talking Back to Your Computer

These days many systems also come with dictation options that you can use to transcribe your words into text on the device. Windows 10 recently added dictation with the fall creators update. Google Drive has a voice typing feature. While Dragon NaturallySpeaking has been the professional tool to use, the widespread integration of these technologies will hopefully spur improvement and use.