Trigger warning

Tower of destruction

The book was actually called Tower of Destruction, but there is no universe in which this is not better

So I had a blog-post all ready. I was going to write about the expectations a cover gives a reader and how these expectations can give a good book bad reviews; I was just dotting the t’s and crossing the i’s when this happened.

Goodkind 2

Originally taken from TG’s Facebook page but now widely shared online. Don’t be that guy, mmkay?

There’s a lot to unpick here. First and foremost I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you not to act like this. Criticising your own publisher is not a move conducive to success. As is pointed out by cleverer, more knowledgeable people than me, a book design is a collaborative effort. The artist works to a brief provided by a publisher. Sometimes an author will be consulted, but it’s not a given.

Secondly, Terry Goodkind has previous. If you’re in the mood, read this. Indeed, type ‘Terry Goodkind is an asshole’ into Google. See where you end up. Shout-out to Chuck Wendig for that top tip.

But let’s just roll back and ask: has TG got a point? Is this a bad cover? What makes a bad cover? That’s not such a simple question as it seems; Fire and Fury has a terrible cover – but that’s a good thing as it works for the genre. “It’s important that it follows the design conventions of political books, as anything more bespoke and crafted could restrict its potential audience and pigeonhole the content. Obviously, there’s scope for a more creative and explicit design response, but I think that misses the point with a book such as this,” says Clare Skeats in this article.

Fire and Fury-FINAL mech.indd

Design by Rick Pracher; copyright Henry Holt & Company

TG’s cover is, to my eyes, a good piece of art. Maybe stylistically it’s a bit old fashioned; it’s a traditional fantasy cover. But to really judge the merits you’d have to know the story (and artists/designers don’t usually read the story they’re producing work for). It would indeed be a bad cover if it failed to reflect to tone of the book – not only specific characters or events but the way the story feels.

The cover above suggests a novel of swords and sorcery and that it’s written in the style of that particular subgenre. Contrast that with a version of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself:

Blade itself 1

Copyright Orion Books; I couldn’t find an individual artist to credit

We expect a different type of read from Terry G’s novel. The language we expect to read changes. And though both could be described as high fantasy (font choice, the semi-hidden symbols, the ripped parchment), we’re told to expect a marked difference in the experience we receive.

If someone chooses your book to read it’s (unless they’re compelled by education or work) because they want something from it. They might want to be scared; they might want to be thrilled. They might want wonderful wordplay. They might just want to switch off their minds for an hour or so. They have a motive, a goal, and they’ve chosen your story because they think you’ll give them that.

That choice is influenced – if not determined – by the book’s cover. It’s down to your artist – be that yourself or a design team or a freelancer – to give the audience the right cues. You have to tell your readers what they’re about to get. You can judge a book by its cover, and this is why.

There’s an interesting article on cover design here, if you’re interested.

A cover doesn’t have to tell a story. It doesn’t have to show specific events, or characters, or anything at all: a blank page is a choice in itself. It doesn’t have to be ‘good’ – it just has to help sell books.

Your cover is your trigger warning. It’s there to tell your readers what they’re about to get into. And (in most cases) to reassure that it contains not a single morsel of Trump.

Art hard

A long, long time ago I wrote a piece about how authors were no longer simply required to write: how we had to be artists & designers, marketing gurus, social media specialists and wotnot. What I didn’t really mention was how much fun this could be. For the last week I’ve set my editing aside and – inspired by the collapse of my somewhat elderly hard-drive – colonised my wife’s laptop and turned my attention to cover-art.

I’ve never missed as many buses as I did on my week’s sojourn, never lost time so completely. Learning new skills is always great. I just never expected to enjoy playing with Photoshop as much as I do.

Greyscale

The prep-work for the cover. It took bloody hours to get this far, mostly because of incompetence and uncertainty. A better impression of how the final image will look can be found here

I’ve never been as artist. I’ve always wanted to be; I’ve played with photography (GCSE grade A, I’ll have you know) and I did go through a phase of creating pastel abstractions in my early twenties. But I can’t draw. I’ve bitterly envied those that can; those amongst you who can simply pick up a pen and show me the inside of your mind. Just like I envy the guitarists. Damn communicators, making it look so easy. Everything I do – have ever done – is the result of bitter struggle, wringing myself out and trying, trying, retrying just to express myself.

I’m trying to get the cover-art right. My methods are the same as those I use to write. The ideas are nebulous. Trial and error; constant deletions and reworkings, shaping my mind as much as I do the image. Using three simple tools because I don’t know how to use the slightly more complicated (but infinitely quicker) fourth. Stumbling, misunderstanding, limping and cursing. But always moving forwards. Making my work a tiny bit better everyday.

It helps that I’ve found tools to design the basic outlines and that the overall image is towards the abstract. That means I’m trusting my intuition, heart and experience as much as my conscious mind – and, given that my conscious mind is an idiot, that means I can sense the image coming together. It’s a wonderful feeling, like learning a new means of – yes – communicating. A book-cover is a capsule encompassing everything the story is. The aim is to set mood, to tell the prospective reader just what the reading experience will be like at a glance.

Of course, this not only covers the image but the text: font, scale, hardness or softness: the mind draws inferences from a fraction of a second’s glance, and can judge from a tiny thumbnail whether the work will be right for them. The human mind is amazing, and anyone who sets out to influence it has their work cut out.

But right now I’m lost in the sheer joy of creation. I hope, deeply hope, that I find the other aspects of self-publishing as much fun as this. Or at least I hope I can learn as much from it. It’s certainly possible to view the business-side of writing as a distraction from real creation, but – right now – I’m choosing to view it as a tremendous opportunity. Not to sell books – that’d be a very nice bonus – but to learn. To grow. To build on my skills and possibly even to find new things to write about.

The road to Good

Image

The first step towards doing something well is to do it badly.

I could be talking about more or less anything. The first draft; the rough demo, or sketch; hell, this blog usually requires a very erratic (and badly grammaticised) bash-through before I’ve worked out precisely what I want to say and how I want to say it.

You sit in front of the computer and you have an idea. You think it’s going to be easy. You struggle to get the words to appear, dark and dreamlike, in front of you, but something goes awry. The sentences don’t flow. Everything is half-baked, clumsy; like a five-year-old on his standardised national test, you shake and tremble and break down in tears as the dialogue that finally emerges seems to have come straight from the aforementioned five-year-old. Sucks to be you.

Be reassured. Everyone goes through this. And it’s easier to fix dodgy work than it is to pour genius onto a blank page. This is where I am with my artwork for Night Shift.

NS2b3

The image here is my first proper attempt at my front cover. I am not happy with it. The figure on the left looks like a robot. The body’s bum is too sharp. Nothing is consistent. There is a distinct lack of harmony.

But getting to this stage is a victory. This is my proof-of-concept: the first real manifestation of the idea I want to bring forth. I had to produce something I’m not happy with so that I can see what’s wrong with both the original idea and the execution – and so I can make subsequent versions better.

The first draft is always the hardest. It takes the most time as you struggle with your tools, with how best to use them, with a lack of prescience and a hole in the bottom of your skills-basket. The second – even if you have to totally scrap the original and start from scratch – will always be easier. You have a map. You have a plan. You know where you’re going. You can avoid the dead-ends and the boggy morasses in favour of higher, more solid, ground.

I will return to my artwork. I will modify my gradient maps (and if you don’t know what a gradient map is, neither did I until a few days ago). I will be more careful with my shading. And, once that’s done, I’ll turn my attention to the equally important choices of font, layout and scaling. Hell, if all else fails I’ve got an idea I can show to a professional so they can do it better.

Now I know where I’m going. With a little luck – and a lot of help – I’ll get there in the end.