THE LITERARY USER EXPERIENCE
From the deep part of my well...
OBJECTIVE & OVERVIEW
While primarily a UX/UI Designer, I also write horror/thriller fiction in a gothic noir style. In the spring of 2010, I read a satirical article online regarding the nature of vampires in pop culture, and how they're no longer frightening (the article was poking fun at the sparkly vampires that were still popular and ever-present in the cinema). What began as a random idea via a few casually jotted notes about how I might correct this malady, turned into a virtual obsession as I started down the road towards authorship.
As a fan of vampire stories, both written and cinematic, I've longed for the tale of a vampire that could fit into a world without superstition, without mythology, and without magic; a world ruled by science, logic, and reason, where everything has a rational, albeit fantastic, explanation. But I also want vampires who mirror the elegance and mystique that Bella Lugosi engendered in Dracula during the Golden Era of Hollywood.
In my Wampyr Novel series, I’ve begun to reinvent the classic monsters of Hollywood using a careful mix of historical revisionism, evolutionary science, and subtle nods to the stories that gave the original monsters their first brushes with celluloid fame.
I had a basic idea for the story, but I wanted to place it in a world that felt real, a world that felt tangible for the reader. As Hemingway famously said, “Write what you know.” I was living in Minneapolis at the time, and so that was the most logical setting for the story. I did a great deal of research for the background for the characters, both protagonist and antagonist, including reading the Epic of Gilgamesh, which would feature heavily in the book.
THE SNOWFLAKE METHOD
Once the concept was established, I created a basic outline and then set about writing the book, employing The Snowflake Method, as developed by Randy Ingermanson, Ph.D.
For me, this meant writing a single sentence or concept for each chapter, essentially laying out each chapter of the book, start to finish. I then went back and elaborated on the first sentence of the first chapter, doing the same for the next few consecutive chapters until the story organically fleshed itself out.
In the same way that User Personas are a vital component to the User Experience, so too are Character Personas integral to a well-defined plot. And as the title suggests, these aren't the personas of the users who will read the book, rather they're the personas of the characters experiencing the action within. It was important for me to know how each of the characters would respond to a given scenario, how they'd interact with each other, and how their personalities might clash. It even helped to know what the characters looked like, allowing me to give proper, consistent descriptions throughout my stories. Below are snippets of the very detailed backstories that I created for just a few of my characters.
Orphaned at birth and failed by the foster system, Ella spent the formidable years of her youth learning to fend for herself while surviving on the streets. After moving from Chicago to Minneapolis, she found a kindred spirit in Ayden Bauer, with whom she bonded over music and their shared childhood misfortune. But her life isn't exactly an open book; much as she loves Ayden there are still secrets, secrets she keeps close to her chest. Trust is a difficult concept for Ella, and she definitely doesn't trust the mysterious stranger that seems to be showing up at all of Ayden's art shows and music gigs.
Musician, artist, carpenter, poet. Truly a modern renaissance man. He was just an infant when his father died. And when his mother had a mental breakdown, turning to drugs as an escape, Ayden was left to essentially care for both her and himself from a very young age. He followed his mother into a life of drugs and heavy drinking, but when he met Ella, she helped him to turn his life around. Together they formed a band, and between his music and his artwork, he's built a moderately successful career for himself in the Twin Cities. And it's this success that has garnered the attention of the mysterious man in the red-feathered fedora. What this man's intentions are, are yet to be determined...
DET. KALISTA RASSAM
Detective, Saint Paul PD. Descendent of famed Assyrian archeologist and explorer Hormuzd Rassam, who discovered the cuneiform tablets containing the Epic of Gilgamesh. She's intelligent, street-savvy, and takes great pride in her work, though she has no qualms about stepping outside the rules of law if it means getting justice. So when she has to break a few rules to investigate a murder that falls outside of her jurisdiction, she doesn't give it a second thought. She'll take all the demerits the department can hand out if it means learning the identity of the man in the red-feathered fedora.
USER TESTING & FEEDBACK
Once my initial manuscript was complete, I enlisted the help of a group of seven beta readers--bibliophiles and fans of the horror/thriller genre--who were willing to read my book and provide honest, constructive feedback. Based on their collective replies, I went through seemingly countless iterative edits that ranged from subtle to drastic before submitting it to my editor for a final check.
The beta readers are then asked to submit a review on Amazon or GoodReads or wherever the book is available. This can be the most important part of the beta reader's job; reviews are the lifeblood of every author!
Judge my book by its cover...
As a designer, I took great pleasure in designing the cover for my first novel. I spent countless hours scouring the internet and perusing the shelves of the local bookstores, purchasing new books and photographing others, building a vast database of resources to be used for my own cover design. I had numerous ideas in mind for the style and art direction for the novel and decided to present the various options to my user groups for a form of A/B testing. I wanted to see which covers my users responded to most favorably, which covers spoke to them in regards to the genre, and which covers they felt would give them pause if viewed randomly on a shelf in the bookstore.
Qualitative vs Quantitative
I made two mistakes running the test. The first was offering too many options that were too varied in style. The second was not limiting the size of the test group. All said and done, 63 users voted on my designs. The two highest rated designs were the Red Cover (design #1, with 35% of the votes) and the Torn Paper Cover (design #4, with 23% of the votes). Those percentages were not statistically significant to prove that one would actually perform better than the other in a real-world scenario, and yet I accepted it and used the Red Cover as the basis for additional iterations, leading to the 1st Edition printing of my novel.
WHAT DIDN'T GO WELL?
The 1st Edition printing proved to be a failure in regards to positive recognition in both digital and physical form. The paperback version did not have the shelf presence that I anticipated; it did not showcase the “wow” factor that I’d hoped for. And the digital version was difficult to read on Amazon.com when viewed on a laptop, and virtually impossible to recognize when viewed on a mobile device.
WHAT CAN BE IMPROVED?
I did have a more suitable design prepared, but I wanted to do it right this time, so I took the additional step of taking an online course from Rob Eager, Mastering Amazon for Authors. Based on what I learned from that course, I was able to tweak another of the higher-rated designs from the user testing (my preferred design, all said and done), and was able to come away with a novel that displays beautifully on a physical book shelf, with cover art and text that is legible on Amazon.com, even when viewed on a mobile device. This 2nd Edition cover has the added bonus of having a style that’s easily paired with my follow-up novels, giving the series a cohesive web and shelf presence.
FINAL PUBLISHED NOVELS
Self-Published and Available From Amazon.com
The Well of Gilgamesh:
A Wampyr Novel
“In The Well of Gilgamesh: A Wampyr Novel, a genre novel by Mike Powers, we are presented with a fast-paced page-turner that stretches back to prehistory and brings us right to the present day with a brilliantly imagined and realized alternative sense of an age-old myth."
-Judge, 4th Annual Self-Published e-Book Awards
Midnight at the North Shore:
A Wampyr Novella
Coyotes and squirrels and . . . vampires? Oh my…
The remote wilderness of Minnesota’s North Shore; an oblivious young couple, blinded by love; a disgruntled friend fed up with being the third wheel; a chilling fireside ghost story and tales of psychotic vagrants lurking in the woods . . . Do you want feral vampires? Because this is how you get feral vampires . . .
Midnight at the North Shore: A Wampyr Novella is a retroactive introduction to the Wampyr Novel Series by Mike Powers.