How to write a book · Life Form 3

My nearly disastrous cover

I nearly made a big mistake. You remember a few months ago I blogged about the development process for the cover of Lifeform Three. Oh it was brilliantly nifty.

To save you reading the original post, I made dummies of different concepts and asked people to interpret what they said about the book. I thought this was a good way to teach myself the language of covers, which I’m not exactly fluent in.

But I have to confess there was one flaw. In my haste and certainty, I neglected one thing. I didn’t get the opinion of someone who’d READ the final version. Getting reviewer reactions was another thing I’ve left until the last possible moment. It’s because I like to do my ultimate edit when I’m making the paperback. If I see typos or edit to change line lengths, I want the print copy to be identical to the Kindle and ebook versions. Also, seeing it properly typeset is a great way to see errors or awkwardnesses you’ve got used to tuning out on your standard Word display. I wouldn’t recommend editing on page, though, unless you’re setting your own book interiors. An external designer won’t like all that faffing. (But you could change your font in a late editing stage and see what new horrors you spot.)

So. I finished my interior and zapped it off to the people who’d asked for advance copies. One of them came back: ‘That cover is badly wrong for this book. Really.’ I have to admit it was not what I needed to hear. Not after many months of on-off cogitation with no concepts that would work (the designer’s a  friend, though he might not be now). By the time I got the final version we were out of ideas. In case you’re wondering, it’s this: 5-1-2 When I tried it on my cover group, I liked some of the reactions. Nature, rebirth, 1970s sci fi (it is in the tradition of Ray Bradbury, so that was good). I also had aliens (no), apocalypse (no), body modification (thrice no!) I thought that, bar a retune to quench the apocalypse, we were there.

Until my friend made his apologetic suggestion. And then proceeded to demonstrate, in a long email, that he understood my target readers better than I do. Darn, he was right. This is what makes writing so curious – especially literary fiction. You think you’ve controlled everything the reader feels about this event and that character. You’ve set it up with minute care. You’ve made sure the themes are catching the right amount of light. You get your images and language humming together, your gut instincts are satisfied.

But it’s as if you’re making a machine, and you really don’t know what it does until you set it going inside the mind of a reader. We’re used to getting feedback from critique partners and editors, but they’re so involved with the building of the book that they can’t judge it afresh.

Certainly my lot had no more distance than I did, and in any case my overall thematic impression didn’t come together until the final edits. And although a designer would be able to give you the fresh perspective by reading the novel, they usually don’t have time to (except at the most prestigious end of traditional publishing).

So now I’ve learned the value of keeping somebody back for this final stage, a reader who hasn’t seen the stumbling versions, who will test-drive the book and tell me what I’ve made. crossed out

At least this is the virtue of being indie. If we’re not tied into a list or a corporate look, we can try completely different identities for our books. That cover is one way to interpret the book for a particular market, maybe. But it’s not what I need to emphasise. Blitz it from your mind. Here’s the real cover. You will hoot when you see how drastically I nearly went wrong. Crumbs. Thank heavens for wise friends. In the meantime, tell me: has someone stopped you making a big mistake with a book?  

16 thoughts on “My nearly disastrous cover

  1. Oh wow! I did love that cover, but you’re so right–it has to be right for the book, to represent it accurately. Whew, good that you got feedback that it wasn’t BEFORE you went to print!!

    1. Hi Carol! Yes, you gave me great feedback on it. There’s no doubt that my designer did a nice job – and that made it harder to accept the voice that said it was wrong. But it seems it’s one skill to make a cover that looks slick. It’s quite another to make the right one!

  2. A beta reader for my novel pointed out that I had a romantic love scene happening right next to the corpse of a murdered ally – and that this might somewhat kill the mood!

  3. Six years ago, my wife screamed at the amount of ‘alien language’ an early draft of my novel had. When I looked at it again, with her comments in mind, she was right… I’d fallen in love with something only I understood.

    A few months ago, I gave her another version. She told me I had a brilliant opening. Then she stopped reading after five chapters because the scene was too brutal (I haven’t got a handle on writing dystopian fiction yet).


    One day I’ll get it right.

    1. Hi Henry! Brave of you to share those! And it was brave of your wife to venture the comment in the first place….
      A questions: is she the target reader for your kind of novel? What’s too brutal for some readers is just right for others. This is where you need to find feedback from people who are also in that kind of genre.

    1. Hi Andrea! I don’t write sci-fi all the time, but the idea for Lifeform Three is SF. But I’ve always admired SF ideas that seem to amplify something about the human condition that would be impossible to express in any other way. For instance, Blade Runner is a fantastic way to ask questions about humanity and living to the full. Sci Fi can find ways to break our laws of the possible, while keeping entirely consistent with our own laws of emotion.
      At any rate, that’s the kind of SF I’m inspired by, and what I hoped to make with Lifeform Three. It’s also my entire approach to stories. I’m drawn to the odd and uncommon that seems to have a deeper resonance.
      So My Memories of a Future Life came about because I wondered what would happen if I turned conventional reincarnation stories upside down. It created something like a poetic metaphor, which suggested a character…. and there I had it.

      1. I think we both have the same view of sci-fi. At it’s best it can be a thoroughly liberating playground for ideas. At it’s worst it can be…um…something else.

        Hail Kindred Spirit!

  4. Thank you Roz for your story: Here’s mine.
    I published four books. No beta reader: no review: no comments from nobody: I tried…hell I tried. Hundreds of “No!” even more “silence.” I desperately sought feedback….nada! Not even my family warned me and we are a highly critical family.
    Four months later I burned three of those books and published the live burning pictures on social media. I wrote a blog and apologized for bringing the writing fraternity into disrespect. Those four months made the distance necessary to see my pathetic attempt at writing. As for the covers; well, let’s not even go there!
    I de-listed those books and deleted the ISBN numbers plus all files from public libraries.
    The money has gone and I am not in a position to replace the publications…from now on it is all eBooks.
    I have re-written two and I am half way through the third. I can now move forward knowing that I am writing better…so says my readership of one: ME.

    Kind regards for the Christmas season (and to all your beloved readers).


  5. Having seen the ‘real’ cover and read a snatch of the story before reading this post, I’d say you made the right choice Roz. This cover is cracking but maybe a touch too John Wyndham compared to the final version you went for (nothing wrong with JW by the way, not at all). Great work on the re-design.

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