I didn’t want to write this post, mostly because I had planned to do a different post on the panic going on from people of inelastic minds (not their fault, most of them were indoctrinated that way) in the face of tech that seems inoccuous but is changing things in ways we can’t figure out. Ah, well, will do that tomorrow.
Today I need to talk about experts.
Look, I love experts – real ones which doesn’t necessarily mean credentialed ones – and having one give an opinion on something I’m trying to master is wonderful.
Well… waggles hand. If you get the right expert, at the right time, in the right mood.
I first learned this when I was a green as grass writer. ALL my group were green as grass writers.
Unfortunately, I was the green as grass writer who did all the work. If the group were a sled, I was the one pulling the sled. I’d come up with a new technique, (new to me, okay? Pipe down) such as starting a story with dialogue. Next thing you knew, everyone in the group was using it. Other things I discovered that are wonderful and startling to newbies, like not having dialogue tags, but tagging dialog with action also disseminated through the group. (It’s amazing. You can read a million books, but you never apply it till a fellow newby does it in group and then you go “oooh.”)
Writers groups are usually like that, though there’s usually more than one innovator. But there’s usually the innovators and the followers.
Not disparaging the followers, they could learn from seeing, which I’m unable to do. (More on that later.)
In our case, because it was so lopsided, I used to get awfully tired. So when we had a writer join the group who had published a book, (remember, guys, we hadn’t even SOLD a short story. Any of us) I not only happily relinquished leadership to her, I learned at her feet, too.
I did say I was green, right? I couldn’t read the signs. This author had published one book ten years before with a very distinctive house. (Yes, it was Baen. No. I’m not going to tell you who it was.) Since then she hadn’t sold ANYTHING. If it were now I’d know that she either had had only one book in her, or only one specific type of book, and that her book hadn’t sold well enough to buy a second or third.
But I didn’t. Green as grass, remember?
She, OTOH had no doubts of her status. Yes, she hadn’t published again, but that was because the publishing industry was wrong. And the public who hadn’t bought her book were wrong. She knew the One Right Way To Write A Novel.
That too, a few years later, would have been an awful warning.
You know those “learning styles” that we (well, I) always assumed were cover for “we don’t know how to teach kids”? Well, turns out they’re real. There is a reason for instance I can’t watch instructional videos and REMEMBER but if I read instructions I’m fine. This has been brought home to be by a son who is an extreme visual learner. I’m actually a kinetic learner. I learn better by touching and feeling something (shut up.) Which is why I can learn better if I’m crocheting while listening to a lecture BUT learn best of all if you make me do it, and correct along the way. (This is difficult with books, which is why I’m largely self-taught.)
Unfortunately, the same way that there are different types of learning, there are different types of writer. The two seem to be correlated.
I can for instance write a novel from outline, but it will be flat. I can do it, because I was taught linear learning, and had it pounded home with a ruler. What I mean is, to an extent (but only to an extent) my suspicions of the “learning styles” thing is right, because learning styles can be ignored, if you’re willing to use force and discard about 30% of the pupils as “too dumb to learn.” (This is a luxury we had when we had kids by the dozen and when there were a lot of GOOD manual professions.)
My best way of writing a novel is to tinker with it, until it coalesces. Which is why I get stopped by illness. However, it gives the richer, deeper substratum. A Few Good Men I could only see one chapter ahead. I understand Pratchett writes like that too (well, wrote) which was a relief finding out. I thought I was broken.
And I usually get the novel from the character who is in trouble.
This was a problem because the woman who came into our group wrote a novel from the plot out. So when I brought in a first chapter about this woman being followed by a mysterious stranger, she told me it was wrong. I didn’t have the setup for the whole plot in the first chapter. Into the trunk the story went.
Over the two years she was with us, she nixed many stories, both mine and others by telling us things like “it doesn’t have a motor.”
It wasn’t till my first fantasy series was bought and I sent it to her (she had left the group by then) that I realized what the problem was. I sent it to her electronic. She told me I’d never sell it because it was a romance with fantasy elements, not fantasy (she missed the part where I’d sold it already) and that my characters had too much interior monologue.
Now, think what you will of Ill Met By Moonlight. I know I do. Geesh, if I ever go down the rabbit hole of beautiful language again, shoot me. It’s more merciful.
But it didn’t have “too much interior monologue.” It had what it needed to for that sort of story.
And that’s when I realized she ONLY knew how to write adventure SF. (Her book is pretty good, even if it didn’t sell wonderfully.) In her mind this was so much “the one right way to write a book” that she couldn’t even cross sidewise into Fantasy, let alone literary fantasy, and heaven forbid she even considered other genres, because she didn’t read them. (For instance, Ill Met is many things. It is NOT romance.)
She WAS trying to guide us as best she knew, but the only road she knew was the one she could see through her blinders, and she imagined it was ALL roads.
And this is why you should be afraid of self-proclaimed experts, particularly in fields where some of you learn in an intuitive and non-linear manner.
An argument has developed in the comments of the post two posts ago. Only I’m not sure it’s a real argument, because it’s Fail Burton against everyone else. He thinks you should leave covers for experts, or do them as flat and boring as possible, because you’d do less harm. The rest of us think he should shut up and try to understand he’s out of his competence.
I’m not going to address his claims except to say that I read a LOT of sf in the sixties. The cover mockup he put up fairly screams “Ace Double.” If you put that up, you’d get everyone assuming it was not only the reissue of an old book but that the person putting it up was dumb enough to scan in his old cover.
What I’m going to tell you is how I came by doing cover design.
First of all, I do have some artistic credentials, in that I’ve taken about three years of training. This was done to keep from going insane while writing six books a year, because while doing art the words SHUT UP.
Where am I? I’d say better than many people selling their drawings, but definitely not professional. Given time – a lot of time – I can produce something that both my teachers and a leading artist in the field said was about 2 years from ‘cover level’ level. The problem is not just those two years – though once the kids are out I intend to resume training – but the time. For instance what I did for the cover of ConVent, back when I THOUGHT you had to do all your own art (long story) took me about two hours. If I’d taken a month, instead, it would have been pretty good art. (Still sucky for a cover, particularly in the digital age, though.)
I’d like to return to drawing, but if I do it will be to do things like draw something for my husband for his birthday or draw some of my friends as pixies. (You know who you are.) And each of the drawings will take six months or so, in the background of what is going on with writing/life.
But that’s neither here nor there. Suffice to say I had training in art. It’s time for the execution I’m lacking and the time to finish learning to “pro level.” I can do that or I can write. I choose to write.
In most cases that’s immaterial. There is always Dreamstime. The covers for my Shakespeare series cost me a grand total of $50 for all of them, and only because I bought big for eventual print.
The one thorn on my side art wise has been the Musketeer books. There simply are no non-photograph musketeers, and most of the photographs are unsuitable, as there is something in the male brain that turns the possessor into a raving idiot the minute he has a sword in his hands.
The expressions on most of the people posing are variations of “Sword, how cool is that?”
Also, historic mysteries NEVER have photographs on the cover.
Most of the historical mysteries have either full paintings or something “iconic” on the cover, like a piece of architecture from the time period. The problem is that the iconic ones take A LOT of push.
I first tried a contrivance of having the landscape in woodcut, with a figure from one of the many out-of-copyright-because-old musketeer paintings. This didn’t work because it signaled “literary.”
BUT for a while I thought it was the best I could do, so I ran with it.
I did a post on covers at MGC in which I put up that cover.
In the next six hours I got emails from TWENTY experts, offering to do my covers for free. Lettering, etc. Also, I got people coming to the site to tell me that the whole painting would look better. Yes, of course it would. It also signaled “reissue of classic” which you don’t want unless the book is… reissue of classic. (My plan for art involves learning DAZ 3-d which is pretty sucky and stiff without post-render work, and then do post-render work, for which my art training is MORE than sufficient.)
The lettering samples they sent me had… the same issue. Look, a lot of them looked very pretty, very balanced, very professional. No argument on that.
The problem was looking at them I got the feeling of “literary and little” tables at cons.
There were also the “it came from the sixties” look of some of them.
I tried to talk about it to a couple of the more reasonable sounding designers, and got the “there’s one right way to do it.”
Which made me run screaming into the night, to learn myself.
I took the Kris and Dean workshop (which is actually taught by a professional cover designer, one who works in many genres.) And I’ve been trying to implement it ever since, hampered by the fact that I learn by doing. Which means my covers are changing every month or so so drastically that the old ones make me cringe.
However, books do sell better with these covers, and not just my books.
Part of what I do is look at the top 100 paper bestsellers, to see what the houses are doing. I don’t have to like them. For instance, the ones for Urban Fantasy and paranormal romance hit me as tawdry and trashy. But that’s what I want to look like to sell those books.
As for the cover of Witchfinder, well, when I asked the vendors at the con about it, they were iffy until I showed them the book, and then they said, “We’ll send you an email about stocking them.” So I know the cover is okay.
Is it brilliant?
What you have to remember is that you don’t have to be brilliant. You have to be as good as an untrained assistant editor in NYC.
What? Oh, sure, that’s who ends up designing most covers – beginner and midlist. The designers do the high falluting covers for the people they intend to push. You and I get English major who knows some photoshop and gets some guidance “That sucks, try again.” And “use minion pro for fantasy.”
This is for cover design, not art, of course. For art…I’m seeing more and more pro covers which come from dreamstime. From the big houses. Okay, mostly romance, but…
But here’s the thing – almost everyone – Dorothy Grant aside, because the designer is excellent and beyond the risk of most of us – NOT doing literary who pays for covers ends up paying $500 or more for “literary and little.”
Also, as you develop an eye for the art that works for covers, you find you need less and less complex art, because thumbnail. Take your favorite painting and view it from across a conference room. It tells you how it works. Our own Mary Catelli in comments has a lovely drawing of a woman as an icon, but for months I thought it was a blown dandelion. Because, small.
Dorothy tells me the K boards are full of designers coming rapidly up to speed and in a year this might have changed, but right now most designers out there are either retired and stuck on the “good design” of their time, which will make your book seem like a reissue. OR they are people my age who’ve been making a living in small press which has its own style.
So… roll your own. Run it by friends to make sure it’s not atrocious. Take comfort in the knowledge that most of what is out there is OBJECTIVELY atrocious. All you’re trying to do is signal “I’m main stream big publisher published” and your genre. You’re not trying to signal “I’m DaVinci.” None of the people working for big houses are that. And you probably have as much training as they have.
Go look at some covers. See what they do with typography. Read Cedar and Dorothy and people who blog on covers. If you can take the Kris and Dean class. It will help.
But most of all, let it go.
Unless your covers are at the extreme of inappropriate (the most common for this being pictures of a landscape as covers for mystery, which requires a drawn cover) or Science Fiction (drawn and with something having to do with science fiction) it’s not going to STOP you selling. It might make your climb slower. But I know at least one indie bestseller with really bad, no good, scary ugly covers. (But they do signal genre and subgenre well.)
And at some time – as with books – you’ve messed with them enough.
Now excuse me. I have to do the litter boxes and go do a third pass on the novella.
UPDATE: I am aware that this post has grammatical subject/verb issues and a couple of huge typos. Deal. I don’t have the TIME to fix it, and I’m on Benadryl, which means likely I’d “fix” it wrong.