My guest this week sees his novel as a fantasy action movie in his head. He says his musical choices were long favourites before he drew on them to create a fast-paced adventure story on a planet far from Earth. He is DM Jarrett and he’s on the Red Blog with a fast-paced whirl through his Undercover Soundtrack.
Double trouble: two authors in the house
The other day Porter Anderson at Writer Unboxed examined the popular notion of the lonely writer hammering out a novel in solitude. It provoked some interesting discussions about the way we do our work or accommodate our hobby in a busy life.
Chez Morris there are two writers. With no children. When you’ve read this post you’ll agree that’s for the best.
I realise some of our routines and habits must look peculiar to outsiders. But maybe they’ll also look familiar too – especially if you are similarly afflicted.
1 Zombie face
When we’re both deep in writing, it is hilariously difficult for us to have a conversation. When we do, it’s as if we’re trying to talk over a noisy background of in-head chatter: story problems we didn’t solve and new ideas that are streaming in. The real person on the sofa seems to be at the far end of a tunnel.
2 Random outbreaks of notes
We are drowning in paper. Junk mail and envelopes must be binned immediately or they will start to grow a colony of notes. Once this begins, the notes must stay where they were born and may not be thrown away for months.
The most everyday conversation might trigger a sudden need to scribble. While in the car, Dave (who does not drive and therefore has his hands free) often finds himself instructed, like a secretary, to grab the notebook and take dictation. Of course we have a notebook in the car. Don’t you?
3 Other rooms requisitioned
We each have a study, but sometimes we need a change of scene to refresh, cogitate, read or pace with a busy mind.
Suddenly one of us will find we can’t use the dining table because husband is outlining his screenplay on index cards. Wife starts to rue the day she wrote Nail Your Novel. (But is also amused that husband uses it.)
Our rooms would be 15% bigger if we didn’t have such a book-buying habit. Upside: no need for pictures.
…which leads to
With such a vast book collection, they have to be kept in organised places. Dining room for books on history and exotic locations; bedroom for SF, short stories and poetry; my study for fiction; Dave’s study for comic books, mythology and folklore. This careful organisation is banjaxed when a book is appropriated for a WIP. It will make its way into a mysterious pile whose order must not be disturbed. It might grow a fringe of cryptic Post-It notes saying ‘Anne’s sunrise’ or ‘part 2’. Apocalyptic fall-out if other partner wants to use it too.
6 Inability to make long-term arrangements
When a book is near to boiling point, whether there is an external deadline or not, making plans with friends is impossible. Do we want to go to a concert with x and y in three weeks’ time? Er, don’t know, is the answer, because the WIP seems to fill up everything. Even though when that evening comes we might knock off at 7 and open the wine.
7 Moral support
We both know that writing involves a lot of time despairing that our work is rubbish. And we also know how precious we sound when we agonise about it. And how writing is not truly hard like, say, brain surgery or bomb disposal or counselling traumatised asylum seekers. We know we’re soft and ridiculous.
8 Unflinching critiques
Yes, we critique each other, and the kid gloves are off. They were never on anyway. Dave is used to collaborating with writing partners. I’m used to editing and ghostwriting. We’re both too bothered by rough work to worry about ruffled feathers. So our manuscripts get tough love and there is grumbling. But it’s better to keep mistakes within our walls than let an editor, programme controller or a reader see them.
9 Self-publishing v traditional publishing
We’re from different publishing cultures. Which is interesting. Dave’s written more than 80 books (I had to google that) for traditional publishers and he’s worked for games companies. When he has an idea, he knows how it fits the market and which editors might like it.
Me, I write and then find I don’t fit any commercial editor’s needs. Thus I discovered the culture of entrepreneur indie-writers.
(Dave is now also publishing under his own imprints (here and here), but my books don’t even fit there. Did I mention tough love?)
And so we are a curious microcosm. In one room, commercial traditional publishing. In the other, commercially-challenged literary indie. In times of strife, the grass often looks greener.
For instance: when we both launched works of fiction.
With My Memories of a Future Life, I’d have sold my soul for an influential endorsement. When Dave launched his reimagining of Frankenstein with Profile books, he was phoned by the national newspapers, appeared on several BBC radio arts programmes and given a login to blog on the Huffington Post. While I was thrilled to see him get such major attention, there was a bit of green-eyed grousing. Several times he was treated to the speech that went: ‘no matter how good my book is, I could not get a start like that’ etc etc. (A lot of etc.) But a year or two on, he’s not as free as I am to make different editions, market it worldwide and do what he feels is needed to keep the book alive. Swings and whatnots.
Anyway: those books are done and more are incubating.
And so we return to #1.
If you’re curious about any of those books we’re hatching or our other author adventures, try my newsletter.
Do you live with another writer, or do you have a close relationship with one as a critique partner? How does it work? If you are the only writer in your family, how does it fit in with the other people in your life?
‘Melancholy, softly-haunted halls’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Leah Bobet
Before she was a writer, my guest this week was a musician. Proficient on piano, guitar and French horn, her most cherished instrument was her own; she yearned to be an opera singer. That didn’t work out, but she says she still feels ruled by the visceral power of music. Her stories come from musical phrases and metaphors that don’t explain themselves. Sometimes she writes by candlelight. She is award-winning urban fantasy author Leah Bobet, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Your story needs two hearts
Stories need two hearts. I’m going to call them the warm heart and the dark heart.
The warm heart is the bond we feel with the central characters. It is the pleasure of spending time in their company. I hesitate to call it liking; it may not be so simple. Our attachment may be to just one person and their flaws and troubles, or it may be to a web of relationships. It is affection, but rough-edged. It is warm, but it might not be cuddly. It’s push and pull, trouble and strife, idiocies and idiosyncrasies. But it is where the reader feels at home.
And then there is the dark heart. The dark heart is jeopardy. The shadow at the end of the alleyway. The characters may have other problems in the story. They may fight miscellaneous foes. But the dark heart is an ultimate disturbance that will demand a day of reckoning.
Two long-running TV shows illustrate this in action. Fringe has both hearts. The central characters form a story family. Some of them are bonded by filial ties: the father, Walter; the son, Peter. There’s Olivia, the FBI agent who becomes Peter’s lover. There’s Astrid, a lab assistant sidekick who becomes a close friend. They are the warm heart of the show; the humans who have real and complex relationships and sally forth to do battle. And Fringe has its dark heart. The characters are on borrowed time; every day brings them closer to a confrontation they cannot escape.
One heart down
By contrast, Doctor Who, whose title character actually has two hearts, only has one of them working.
The story’s warm heart is in good shape. The Doctor and his TARDIS companion always have a vibrant relationship that brings us back week after week. We also get drop-ins from the extended story family: the Doctor’s wife; the occasional friendly alien he befriended while saving them. Previous companions are also available. This creates a galaxy family bonded by experience and affection.
The warm heart beats strongly. But the dark heart does not.
Now that might seem like nonsense. Doctor Who is all about getting into danger and fighting monsters, right? But they don’t treat these as seriously as they treat the character universe.
The threats are often negligible. Too often, the Doctor wins with a gadget, some fast-talking, an asspull or a vague wave of the omnitalented sonic screwdriver. He never has to raise his game to win. And the scriptwriters frequently bend the rules of their own show – thus disrespecting their own universe.
Although each series has an overall arc, which is where the dark heart should be beating its dreadful rhythm, it is false. It never produces a confrontation that will really put the Doctor on his mettle, or that could credibly destroy him. Even if the writers trick it up to look like that, he’s usually freed in one bound, and does not have to go through the wringer.
Because the writers don’t make us believe in the dark heart, the warm heart loses some of its power. You could say this demonstrates that we need the story to be taken as seriously as the characters are. Controversial.
Fringe goes one step further to genius. Here is why: the warm heart created the dark heart. Walter Bishop committed a crime that started an epic war. His son died, and so he opened a wormhole to a parallel universe and stole him back. The flawed warm heart let the dark heart in.
In a great story, the warm heart and the dark heart pump each other with life. The dark heart makes the warm heart more precious. And the warm heart makes the dark heart more terrible.
Thanks for the hearts pic Joselito Tagarao and the Fringe pic hherbzilla
Let’s discuss some stories – film, TV or prose – with warm and dark hearts. Buffy, anyone?
‘I woke from a wondrous and startling dream’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Mark Staufer
I’ve often thought we need to be able to film our dreams. While we’re at it, can we please record the fully orchestrated music we compose in them? While I’ve slumbered, I’ve written albums that surpassed my favourite artistes, and when my eyes open they’re gone. My guest this week clearly thinks the same way. He woke from a dream and wished he could preserve it on film… not surprising as he is a screenwriter and former head of production at Universal Studios. From this idea began a supernatural thriller – but it’s no ordinary book. He worked with a composer and sound designer to create a multimedia app that’s a book when you want to read and a musical experience when you choose to open your ears. And of course there are the secret pieces that showed him the souls and truths of his characters. He is Mark Staufer, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
Only connect: how to wake a dormant muse
My muse is in trouble. I’ve spent too long on facts and analysis. I’ve been longing to tackle the Mountains Novel. Ideas and concepts have been piling up in my files, but now my schedule allows, I can think only of practicalities. My notes look like thin nonsense. I only see the problems, not the potential.
This is what going to press – and e-press – does to your mind. These last weeks have been an orgy of pedantry. Crossing ts and eyes, making an index, hyperlinking cross-references, obeying format rules for the kingdoms of Smashwords, Kobo and Kindle, typesetting the print version, reading onscreen proofs, tweaking bloopers and doing it all again. Oh and I updated the typography in the original NYN too, so that was an extra dose of proofing.
Now, my muse is on strike. I need to win it round. Here’s what I’m doing.
Forgive me if this is the most air-headed post I’ve ever written. I’m blowing away cobwebs.
While finishing the characters book, I’ve been making a list of novels and memoirs that have resonated with themes and ideas I want to explore. There’s nothing like a good book to make me want to write.
Compiling a soundtrack
Of course I’m doing this. I’ve been collecting CDs for the car, tracks for running to. Some of them have come from others’ Undercover Soundtrack posts, especially Andy Harrod, Tom Bradley, Timothy Hallinan and a few that are currently a secret between me and the writers because they’re cued up in my inbox. Thank you, guys, for opening the windows.
Rediscovering the fun in connections
A few things that real-life friends have introduced me to these last few days that reminded me how homo sapiens is an endlessly creative creature.
I have a friend called David Bailey. Yes, like the famous photographer, but not related to him. Though my David Bailey does like taking photographs. And he’s spent much of his life grappling with scornful titters if he wields a camera. Last year, he was recruited for an advertising stunt, where 143 chaps called David Bailey gathered in London, put on black polonecks, were trained to use a whizzy camera and had to spend the day using each other’s middle names.
2 People lying down in Mexico
More pictures, also sent to me by a camera ninja. Fran Monks (a portrait photographer who is less challenged by namesakes) found this collection from Magnum of people lying down in Mexico.
These foolish things inspire me. There’s something so adorable about found similarity. A brigade of guys called David Bailey, identically dressed and taking pictures. Ten beautifully composed photos where everyone is, curiously, lying down. I could detonate with delight. If I wrote a thousand words I wouldn’t get to the end of why.
Whether your art is visual, written or sonic, so much starts by taking the world and seeing patterns. Repetitions. Connections. One idea boldly takes the hand of another, one character finds another, one event causes another, fractalling on and on. They look as though they should always have been joined. I won’t make the same connections you do, and that’s what makes your art yours and my art mine.
What inspires you?
(Aside: this week, some of the David Bailey pictures are being sold on ebay to raise money for the Marie Curie Cancer Care charity. One of them is by the very famous black polonecked David Bailey; one is by my black polonecked David JW Bailey, who also provided the pics for this post. See if you can tell which is which)
Write great dialogue scenes in 7 steps
Of all the scenes we write, dialogue is the most complex and rich. Most writers I know take several passes to get it right. On average, I find there are seven clear steps to nailing a dialogue scene.
1) Get the characters talking This may sound obvious, but it’s an effort to break out of ordinary narration and hop into the characters’ heads. If we’re writing first person, we have to stop sharing the consciousness of their narrator to let the other people come alive. Writing down what each character says, in their own voices, will probably be quite enough to concentrate on in one pass.
2) Visuals Dialogue needs to be more than just a soundscape. Characters act while they speak. They shrug, pull faces, refill the kettle or polish a sword. The scene has to exist visually in the reader’s mind. While you’re writing, it’s easy to get tunnelled down one sense – usually aural – and forget that there are others.
3) Change As every scene must move the story on, we hope that each dialogue scene will contain something that matters to the characters. They can’t just natter for nothing. Even if they’re establishing their characteristics, it’s better if the scene does something else too. That could be a plot change or a shift in their relationship – perhaps the scene bonds them more tightly or creates rifts.
4) Reactions When your characters are talking, are they also reacting? If your other scenes show their internal dialogue, does this continue while they’re talking, or has this evaporated because you were concentrating on making them vocalise?
5) Subtext The scene might have more heft than a simple exchange of information. It might be a battle to get the upper hand. One character might be telling the other that he loves her, or to stop trying to find out what happened to the missing neighbour. The scene might have a layer that only one group of readers will understand: for instance, if the novel might be read by both adults and children, it may contain meanings that will only make sense to older readers.
6) Language Depending on your genre, the language might add a poetic dimension, reinforce your themes, reflect the characters’ different backgrounds and outlooks. Pathetic fallacy or your descriptions may add colour, feeding the texture and atmosphere of the novel.
7) Declutter Dialogue scenes are meant to run swiftly in the reader’s mind. Although we need context, action and description, we don’t need to add every breath and eyeblink. It may not matter that the character pours a glass of water while he lets out a sigh. You may have been too obvious with your allusions; the reader may be able to fill more blanks than you think. Let the scene sit for a few days, then go back with a fresh perspective and take out the clutter.
Do you have any steps to add? (Apart from a complete phase of changing your mind – which for me happens to me ad infinitum when I’m letting the characters talk to each other.) Share in the comments!
If you found this post useful, there’s an entire section on dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters To Life. Weightless editions are ready right now, twinkling on the servers of Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Smashwords and Kobo.
GIVEAWAY Andrew Blackman is offering a signed copy of his novel A Virtual Love on The Undercover Soundtrack. For a chance to win, leave a comment on the post or share it on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or anywhere else (and don’t forget to leave a note saying where you shared it).
Book marketing, self-publishing – and should you seek a publisher? All the fun of the London Book Fair 2013
Last week I was one of Kobo’s writers in residence at the London Book Fair. Several of the questions I was asked reminded me that every day, writers are trying to grasp this new publishing world. I thought it might be helpful to post their FAQs.
Should I post samples of my book on my blog to tempt people to buy?
You could, but you don’t need to. The ebook stores offer a sample of the beginning before readers buy. Here are two other things I do.
- I use the eye-catching animated widget from Bookbuzzr (here’s Nail Your Novel).
- I also have an audio file of the first 4 chapters of my novel – 35 minutes of listening, perfect for a commute. It’s either downloadable (hosted as a file in Google Docs) or there’s an immediate-play version on Soundcloud.
Should I make a print edition?
If you’re going to meet readers in real life, yes. For my talk, I’d brought along print copies. When I pulled them out of my bag, the reaction was immediate and adoring, as if they were fluffy kittens. Even from the Kobo staff. People picked the books up, flicked through the pages, stroked the spine, read the back (spine and back covers are as important as front). I was amazed, actually, at how much impact a print edition makes.
I have a post here about interior formatting, but it’s quite a faff if you’re not used to it. Which leads me to…
Which services should I pay for?
If your book is traditionally published, the publisher does a lot of jobs you’re probably not aware of. Developmental editing, copy editing, proofing, design of cover and interior, typesetting and ebook formatting. It’s a growing business to offer these services to indie authors, so The Alliance of Independent Authors has released Choosing a Self-Publishing Service 2013, with testimonials and warnings where necessary. Before you part with any money, get this book.
What can I do to market my book?
The guys at the KDP stand reported that this year’s number one question was ‘why isn’t my book selling’? (Some writers were ruder than that. I saw a furious lady collar an Amazonian and growl: ‘I have five books on KDP, what are you going to do about selling them?’. If Amazon starts offering marketing services, don’t wail that they’re evil. They get asked about it day in, day out. And it’s very unfair to blame them for it. They just give you the space to use.)
Amazon had some sensible replies: get a stand-out cover, choose categories wisely, write a cracking blurb, get honest reviews, generate curiosity about your work. And (the representative said this with an embarrassed cough): make sure the book is good.
More on marketing
Kobo’s Mark Lefebvre (on Twitter as @MarkLeslie) gave a rousing presentation on writers connecting with readers. One method was ‘street teams’. Remember The Tufty Club? These days, post-Tufty writers are inviting fans to join dedicated sites and giving away special editions, tie-in jewellery, bags and temporary tattoos. If it fits your genre (I can’t quite imagine a red piano tattoo myself) you could make up a few as competition giveaways.
Another tactic Mark described was authors who band together as a bigger presence. Group blogs in a genre such as Crime Fiction Collective, author collectives (such as Triskele Books and Authors Electric) curated collections such as the League of Extraordinary Authors). And of course there are themed blogs like my Undercover Soundtrack.
One of the takeaways is that marketing isn’t one-shot. It’s about staying visible, steadily and sustainably. As with the editorial and production services, there are a lot of marketing companies who’ll take authors’ money for campaigns, but you don’t have to do that. You don’t need a big budget to keep your work on the radar, you just need imagination and likeminded souls. Paid advertising and publicity has its place but there’s a lot you can do yourself.
Let readers pre-order your book
Did you know Kobo lets you create a page for pre-orders? I didn’t. Why would you do this? Because when the book launches, you then get a big spike of sales because they all process on the same day. This pushes you further up the charts and makes you more visible in the Kobo store. Now, if I can just get my blurb written for Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life…
BTW I changed my Twitter name
If you follow my writing advice stream you might have noticed I changed my handle from @DirtyWhiteCandy to @NailYourNovel. @DirtyWhiteCandy was the original name of my blog. I kept it as my Twitter name because I liked its bossy vibe, but as the years go on, fewer people would know (or care) where it came from and if people are looking for writing advice they’d be more likely to follow a tweep called @NailYourNovel. These days, indie author-publishers are looking smart and slick, rather than roguishly maverick. So, much as I liked the @DirtyWhiteCandy story and sass, it has to go.
FAQ: Should I submit to publishers and agents or should I self-publish?
Hmm. Sound of teeth being sucked. Look back over this post and you’ll see the amount of work involved in publishing. You don’t just write a book, upload and hope the fairies tell the world. You need expert help to create it and you need partners to spread the word. Publishers and agents can be your allies if the deal is right.
Authors are still largely invisible in the publishing industry
One of the highlights for many was the heaving turnout at the Author Lounge in the digital quarter. Every author event was swarming with eager listeners. Authors report overhearing agents muttering about tumbleweed blowing through the foreign rights section, while on the upstart digital stands, all was abuzz.
But don’t be misled. In our own corner authors were calling the shots, but the rest of the conference told a different story.
1: Neil Gaiman
On the Sunday before the main fair, there was the Digital Minds Conference. The keynote speech was given by Neil Gaiman. I have to wonder what the delegates were meant to learn from him about digital media.
LBF’s press releases made much of the fact that he blogs and has a lot of Twitter followers. But, my friends, that’s because he was traditionally published. The publishers may have lauded themselves for inviting an author to tell them the way ahead, but they chose one who reinforces their faith in the old model. Even in his struggling years, Gaiman wasn’t like most new authors, writing books on spec while having another job. He was a contractor at DC Comics, getting paid while he made the work that made his name. In fact, why didn’t they ask JK Rowling, who famously lived hand to mouth while writing?
Better still, their figurehead could have been a bestselling indie author who made their success purely from publishing’s new digital tools. Hugh Howey, anybody? Instead they had Gaiman comparing publishing with a dandelion, throwing seeds out haphazardly and seeing what works.
2: Ahem – monstrous storytelling
Elsewhere at the Fair, the authors weren’t getting much credit. I went to the session on digital storytelling. This featured a panel of publishers and developers, but no actual storytellers – the authors.
One of the panel members, Henry Volans of Faber Digital, wrote an accompanying piece for the Bookseller, in which he mentioned Dave’s Frankenstein app. He credited it to the publisher, Profile Books, and the developer, Inkle. He never mentioned Dave, the author. Now, forgive the personal bias but I hope you’ll see it illustrates a wider point. Dave had the entire idea. He pitched it to Profile, figured out how to make it work, reenvisioned and expanded the entire novel to the tune of 150,000 words. (Here are his posts in case you’re curious: part 1, 2 and 3.) The developer (Inkle) was hired by the publisher to add software and graphics. The reader’s experience comes mainly from the writing, not the pictures or the machinery.
After yet another pundit wrote about Frankenstein and gave all the credit to Profile and the developer, Dave quipped on Twitter: ‘I very much enjoy Amazon’s Wool and Bloomsbury’s Harry Potter.’
Back to the Book Fair
Just two examples, but they betray a general attitude. In an era of revolutions, who gives publishers hope? Somebody who’s conquered the new world? No, a lovable demi-god of the old one. Who might tell them what new products the book might evolve into? The people who understand readers so well they can push the artform onwards? No, the middle men.
Authors still aren’t seen as significant contributors to the industry. And this is reflected in the deals publishers offer. They know you’re far more heavily invested in your book than they are and they’ll take unforgivable advantage. They’ll word the contract with woolly clauses that say ‘at our discretion’ and ‘in our opinion’, which mean they can do whatever they like with your rights and your manuscript. They’ll help you with the launch for a couple of weeks, after which you’ll be as alone as if you’d self-published, only you’ll make even less money. Leaving aside the emotional attachment, they have no idea that the work you put in on the average book probably amounts to two man years, and their contribution is a few man months.
Just tell me, should I seek a publisher?
I still think if you’re new to the industry you should query, because you never know what opportunities you might find. You might get feedback that helps you make the book better, or confirms you’re ready to reach out to the market in whatever way suits you.
An agent is probably more help to you at the moment than a publisher. Even if they don’t get you a deal, it’s a contact in the industry, should you need it. But also consider the agent’s motivation. They’re not risk-takers or talent-nurturers. They want you to make a deal, otherwise they don’t get paid. You might get an offer that looks like quite a lot of money, but it might be all you see and the terms might be punitive.
Publishers at the moment don’t seem to be worth the bother. Smart authors can do better for themselves, but this can’t continue. For a while, publishers will bluster on, trying to keep things the way they are. But in a few years’ time, they might be offering true partnerships and fair, transparent deals.
Bottom line? Explore all your options. Treat publishers like any other partnership or service you might use. Evaluate what they will do for you and what you will give them. Self-publishing offers you a powerful walk-away point, which you can use as a bargaining chip even if you want a traditional deal.
Thanks for the LBF pics Porter Anderson and the megaphone pic Neate Photos,
Thanks to everyone who dropped in to see me at LBF! If this post hasn’t bludgeoned you with options and confusion, is there anything else you’d like to ask about publishing?
Not sure how to market your book? Maybe you already know… guest post at Michael Schein Communications
To my surprise, I find myself guesting today on the blog of marketing and communications consultant Michael Schein. I thought I knew zilch about marketing; certainly not enough to share with those who possess business genes. But Michael contacted me after reading Nail Your Novel and asked if he could pitch me some questions.
Once I got my teeth into them, I realised that storytellers and advertisers run on adjacent rails. The sensitivities we use as novelists could serve us well when we have to intrigue the world about our books or write blurbs and pitches. Although we still have to identify where our readers hang out, writers of fiction are well equipped to sell ourselves and our work. Come and see.
How to get a great cover design – when you don’t know what it should be
Your novel’s cover is make or break, especially if you’re an indie. Whether you do your own art or use a designer, you have to know your book’s market and what will grab the right readers.
I tweeted two posts this week where indie authors wrote about working with cover designers – one by Andrew Kaufman at Crime Fiction Collective and the other by Terry Odell at Blood-Red Pencil.
They talk about an exciting two-way process where they discuss images and typographical treatments. But you can’t direct a designer unless you know what your cover should say. And that’s my problem with Life Form Three, which I’ve decided I’ll publish later this year. Perhaps it’s yours too, especially if you have a novel you’re told is too original and doesn’t fit a genre. This is how I’ve solved it.
I decided to do market research. And it’s turned out to be incredibly helpful.
What I did
I picked an emblematic scene from the book and roughed out a cover to illustrate it. I sent it to friends, who I figured might like the book but in different ways. I included a few hyper-critical writers too, because I knew they would give me the truth.
I also found I got more honest critical comment when I asked friends to show the cover to their spouses and report back. If the spouse didn’t have to worry about hurting my feelings, they were far more brutal.
I didn’t ask: ‘do you like this cover’. A ‘yes’ or ‘no’ doesn’t tell you anything. Instead my questions were: What is this book about? What does it say to you? (They’ll tell you anyway whether they like it.)
Do they already know anything about Life Form Three? No – and that’s the point. They are interpreters telling me what I’ve just said in a language I don’t yet speak. I thanked them for their feedback and explained that I wasn’t going to tell them whether their responses were on the right track or not in case I needed to use them again.
I repeated the experiment with another rough cover in a very different style, and gathered another bunch of useful responses. I added more guinea pigs who hadn’t seen the previous version.
What did it cost?
Nothing, except time researching images (which was considerable – so start well in advance). The pictures for the first cover were roughs from photo libraries, which they’ll let you download free to make dummy designs. The second cover was a detail from a painting I knew I could license. I can’t show you either of them here because I don’t have the reproduction rights. (Also, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea – my jurors have been sworn to secrecy!)
Did it work?
Totally. I was very surprised by some of the responses – and that showed how much I needed their feedback. And this brings me to another point. Don’t do a test if the results won’t influence what you do next. With both trial covers, I thought I was onto a good concept. When I tested them, I discovered flaws I couldn’t have thought of.
But after these two exercises, I have clarity. Even though neither cover was right, I know what the real thing should say and I can brief a designer. (And my guinea pigs are still in suspense…)
What kind of brief do you need to provide? A designer won’t have time to read your book. Send a synopsis that captures not just the events but gives a flavour of the storytelling style. Also list the target audience including age group, imagery and themes that might be of special significance or scenes that could carry the spirit of the whole work. Also explain why you chose the title, as the art should enhance it or create intriguing tension. And let the designer know if you want to leave room for blurb quotes and loglines.
Do it early
I’m not going to publish Life Form Three until at least autumn, but I need the cover in advance because that will set the tone for everything else. The blurb and any publicity materials will be created to make sense of it. So it’s essential that the book’s outside is faithful to the inside.
Footnote: how the other half lives
Funnily enough, as I’ve been moving mountains for the right cover, a traditionally published friend is having a very different experience. I know indies are probably past the stage where we have to stress that our production processes are up to professional standards, but this left me reeling.
Out of the blue my author friend was sent a cover by the art director. He hadn’t been consulted about it. It would be worth getting his input too, as he’s been a bestselling children’s author for more than a decade and knows what covers have sold well to his readership. He tells me that when he signed the contract he emailed the art director and offered to send briefing notes, but was curtly told: ‘We don’t need your notes. We know what we’re doing’.
So did they? No. The cover they designed was catastrophically inappropriate. They didn’t ask about the the age group, so they made it look too juvenile. While the book’s competitors have slick images that look like computer games, this cover featured big typography (ie it was cheaper than proper art) and thumbnail graphics. Even the font gave the wrong messages – it suggested the setting was the wild west, whereas the book is set in ancient Persia. Now the author is locked in a dispiriting argument with the publisher about a cover he knows will be a disaster.
You know what? I’m glad I have control of my cover.
How have you decided what to put on the cover of your novel? How have you made sure it sends the right signals? Have you changed a cover so that it could find its true audience?
(I haven’t finished with covers yet. I may need jurors for Life Form Three Version 3. If you’d like to be one of the secret clan, email me or sign up to my newsletter)