The Vision Thing

I like a fresh challenge. I like learning new stuff. So the idea of self-publishing my series of fantasy novels (and some other fiction too, before long) is kind of fun, at least if we define “fun” loosely. In between sessions of editing on the story, I’m delving into the minutiae of document formatting and trying to wrap my brains around book cover design.

I’m not a professional graphic artist. I need to hire a cover designer. That much is obvious. But in looking at hundreds of book covers on designer websites, I’m just not seeing anything that floats my boat. Not only that — as I look at the bold and exciting work of a dozen different cover designers, a certain sameness starts to creep in. I’m reminded of the column that Kris Rusch wrote about “serious writer voice,” a phenomenon in which writers all start to sound alike because they’re all striving for the same sort of professional polish.

The covers I’m seeing look generic — and that’s because they are generic. A book is in, or at least is marketed as belonging to, a genre. Same root word: genre = generic.

It’s clear that a book cover needs to be simple. Too many elements will clutter it up. It needs to be eye-catching. Contrasting colors are good. I get all that. But also, most designers of fiction covers today seem to be using stock photos, which probably limits their design choices in ways that are not obvious to the uninitiated. A cover done by an illustrator is going to be either very darn expensive or painfully cheesy. But generic photos do not lend themselves to distinctive originality. Pundits among the design crowd will even tell you that being distinctive is bad. You want to be generic. You want to make the potential book buyer a promise that you will satisfy his or her desires for reading pleasure. If your cover is too weird, you’re promising the wrong thing. You’ll lose sales.

Here’s what one pundit says on his site: “It’s simple: You need a cover that instantly grabs one’s attention and describes what the book is about in a single glance.” Gee, that seems both evident and wise. But as I think about it, I start getting angry. What that sentence is telling me is, my book needs to be about one single thing. The idea that a book might be about several things is — well, I’ve already committed marketing suicide, that’s what it looks like.

Plus, this is a four-book series. (What do you call that, a quadrology?) Am I supposed to envision four related yet distinct cover images all of which convey the same thing?

Further down the page, this self-styled authority (the author of a how-to-write book) says this: “Describe your entire book in one, single, solitary, sentence. … Pick the best possible image to present your book. Consider your perfect readers and ask yourself what would make them ‘FEEL’ something when they see your cover. They don’t need to feel good or happy (or pleased), and they don’t even need to ‘like’ your cover per se, but it’s imperative that they ‘feel’ something. If you have your single sentence and single image figured out that will save you time and money.” [Quotation marks and caps in original.]

I’m in big trouble, folks. My single solitary sentence (okay, it’s two sentences, but the second one is only a fragment) is probably going to be, “Lord of the Rings meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Except, no vampires — sorry.” Try shoehorning that into a single image.

The essence of this story, it seems to me, is that it’s multifaceted. In the first volume alone there are ten viewpoint characters (two of them minor). At least another ten are scattered across the remaining three volumes. The story has action, suspense, romance, a little humor, a tiny pinch of philosophy, and plenty of people’s feelings. It has dragons, wizards, elves, horseless carriages, flying machines, imps, firearms, murder, music, texting (magical), a ghost, a not entirely bloodless revolution, prophecies, an invasion, healing, special effects, body-snatching, madness, and a triple wedding. Just about everything except vampires and zombies.

Contemplate that idea of the single image that makes you feel something in the context of this passage (a little teaser here) from Book I of my 4-volume series. By way of explanation, Kyura is the chief heroine of the story (though Meery does some pretty heroic things too). The “it” referred to in the sentence, “Get rid of it!” is the Leafstone Shield, which Kyura has accidentally inherited. That’s the title of the novel — The Leafstone Shield.

Meery Caitledore felt all muddled up. She felt about five different things, all at once. When your best friend, who you’d known practically your whole life, suddenly wasn’t just an ordinary person anymore, when all of a sudden it turned out she was someone amazingly special and important and had been all along, you were supposed to be happy for her! Maybe throw a party. Give her a big hug, for sure. Meery felt happy for Kyura, she really did. It just bubbled over. She felt proud to know Kyura, too, and she admired Kyura (well, she had always admired her) and knew Kyura would be a wonderful High Priest someday — if she lived long enough. And that was the scary part. The amazingly special thing that had happened was also really, really dangerous. Meery still shuddered when she thought about the air dragon, and about how she, Meery Caitledore, had started hitting it with a broom handle without even thinking. Before long there would be something worse, if you could believe the old wizard. It looked like Kyura was probably going to wind up dead before very long on account of it, and Meery was scared for her. She wanted to say, “No! Get rid of it! Put things back the way they were!” But she didn’t feel she could tell Kyura what to do, unless Kyura asked for advice. And even then, she’d probably give bad advice. Or maybe Kyura was so overwhelmed by everything that had happened that she felt too mixed up to ask for advice, even though she would like some if Meery offered it. The old wizard had given her some advice, so maybe it would be all right. But Meery couldn’t begin to guess what was the right thing for Kyura to do, and she was smart enough to know she didn’t know. A little jealousy was mixed in with the happiness and the fear, too. Nothing amazing or special ever happened to Meery. The happiness and the scared part kind of canceled out, and that left her feeling sorry for herself, which wasn’t very admirable and she wasn’t about to admit it to anybody, especially not Kyura, and who else could she talk to? So she was moping a little while she wiped the tables in the common room after lunch.

Okay, so I’m supposed to pick one single feeling for the novel — or worse, for the entire four-volume series — when the opening of Chapter 25 of Book I by itself (a chapter that is mainly concerned with why Meery’s new boyfriend always wears a hat) has happy, proud, admiring, scary, confused, jealous, and sorry for herself all mixed in together.

Maybe I should put a Venn diagram on the cover. (Hint: That’s the worst cover idea EVER.)

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