Let me say that again in case you are hard of hearing. Hire a professional. Did I hire a professional? No, absolutely not. Mine was born of a creative mind and a modicum of talent. But as with most things in my life, you should do what I say and not what I do, because generally speaking, I make horrible, horrible decisions (which were a hell of a lot of fun when I made them, but still. You should really not use me as an example of anything.)
Hire a professional.
Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to the fun part. How I designed the cover for Death’s Grip, which may or may not help you design your own cover, which I told you in no uncertain terms not to do.
Well, before I get into the nitty and gritty of what I did that I shouldn’t have done, I’ll go into the pros and cons of it. Writer’s tend to make a mess of covers. They are too close to the material. The best cover ideas are abstractions of themes or a pivotal setting in the book. Nevermind the proficiency required of photoshop or some other image-editing, collage-making program, you have to have a good eye for space, colors, fonts and images that convey an abstract idea. Many writers aren’t that skilled with words, let alone those things, which are a different skill set entirely. Those are the tools of graphic designers. And the writers who ARE wonderful with words (the incredible gift that they are) should stick to telling stories and weaving those words into beautiful tapestries that mesmerize and haunt us. Leave the painting to the painters, the sculpting to the sculptors, the song writing to the song writers (and the playing to the musicians), and the photo montages and such to the graphic artists. To each their own.
Now that being said, there does exist the possibility of translation. I, by sheer coincidence I suppose, have been using photoshop and Adobe programs for years. I am by no means a graphic artist or professional of that ilk. I have, however, developed a certain skill with the programs as well as an eye for colors and space that helped in the translation of literary ideas into cover art. Because the writer does have one benefit that the graphic artist does not. They’ve lived in those ideas for years. The writer understands his material and can condense and distill the vapors of creative thought into an interesting visual that’s represented in a medium other than words.
Unfortunately, the writer’s tendency is to overdo, to put the whole book onto one cover. No! Just, no. You must simplify, simplify, simplify. A single image to represent a single idea. A crime in the woods becomes a night-time forested scene, only with no characters at all, leaving one to wonder what went under that dark canopy. (Okay, that’s been done before, ad nauseam.) Let’s add a shovel leaning against a tree, perhaps with a dark splotch on it or a tuft of hair. Okay, I’m truly sick, but you get the point. Whatever you do, DON’T put a character in there (unless they’re like mine and silhouetted or like Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and all you see is the hair of someone fleeing.) I’ve seen so many soap operaish covers with characters displayed. The reader wants to imagine your characters, not be shown what they look like. That’s just uninteresting. Like our forested scene above, they want the abstraction of an idea, in this case, a horrible event that will make them curious. Remember, the fundamental commonality of every reader is that they are curious, regardless of what genre they read, though what they are curious about may differ. Your job as the writer is to stoke that curiosity, which starts with your title and cover. The combination of the two is the powerful first impression that you must make.
(There are exceptions to everything. Sometimes a depiction of an unusual character might work, perhaps some member of an indigenous tribe in face paint. If it’s intriguing and stokes that curiousity, use it. I’ll repeat of common phrase you’ll see throughout this blog: there are exceptions to everything.)
Let’s take To Kill a Mockingbird, a cover I examined at great length because it’s classic and it’s image–and the words within–were truly haunting. The setting is a small town in southern Alabama during the 30s. The cover absolutely invokes that sense of a small town with the tree that one can imagine in every front yard behind the picketed fence. Playing under that tree is an innocent girl, who also happens to be in silhouette as Dr. Hodges is on my cover. The title is written in black letters as leaves on the tree. Very professional, very artistic. But something is amiss in this town. Perhaps we know something is amiss because all of us know the story. Perhaps it’s because the title says something about killing a mockingbird. Who knows? The cover and the title reinforce each other and work together to draw us into the pages. We are curious and interested. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that secondary schools across the land have made students read the work going back decades. That might explain why it’s in the top 20 selling books of all time (so are several of the Harry Potter books, by the way, which don’t have the benefit of being forced on high school students. Harry Potter books are read in droves. Voluntarily.) Do I sound a little bitter? No, To Kill a Mockingbird truly deserves its status. It’s one of the greatest works of all time, that great American novel we should all aspire to. Still, I’d love it if they made every high school kid in the country buy my book, too. Ahhh, to dream big.
Okay, so how did I do my cover?
Well, it helps to have a little knowledge of photoshop, its inner workings and its tools. I’m by no means an expert. And as I said before, I have developed a sense of space and color, both important in graphic design. I had taken on the idea of doing a cover so I started tinkering around with ideas. Well, of course the first few ideas were atrocious and amateurish. Often they are, as you flounder about for that brilliant idea that just works. I was at work one night (I work nights as a sleep technician), and the idea struck me. Often, ideas come to you, whether for stories or plots or a phrasing you’ve been working on, or for a cover as in this case, while you are doing something else like the dishes or taking a shower or at work at your day (or night) job. It just hits you, bam! You only hope you’re not in the middle of doing something important, and you fall over and crack open your skull or hit someone with your car. Be careful out there. Ideas can be dangerous things when they come to you in the middle of other activities. Yet that’s the fate of the creative person.
So the idea came to me. First, the colors. White, black and gray. A woman on a platform bed at the bottom, a man in silhouette obsessing over her. The white like a cross, and the woman laying as if on an altar. It was perfect. I couldn’t wait to get home and play with the idea. The title, font and effects would come later, since the title at that time was Ghosts in the Wind, which I thought was artistic, but a best-selling author came out with a middle-grade book of a similar title in December of 2015, so I floundered about for a new title (more on that in another post).
Once I had the title, I created a sheet of fire, which had a mix of colors, from orange to bright red to dark red, but it’s the oranges and bright reds that really popped. As fire, it didn’t really do what I wanted it to, but it looked cool when I created a mask out of the title characters (using a minion pro font). (A mask, by the way, creates an outline of the characters and displays the background like the characters are a window to what’s behind them.) Most importantly, this new design looked great at thumbnail size, absolutely critical to today’s Amazon-driven marketing environment. I added the tank of pressurized gas later for a little color and something more of visual interest. At one time I wanted to do something of interest with the title, such as a drop shadow or a 3-d effect or skewed letters but nothing worked so I left it as is. No reason to overdo it, as so many amateurs are wont to do. (And I definitely didn’t want to LOOK like an amateur, even though I was.)
So there you have it. The Death’s Grip cover in all its glory. Perfect at thumbnail size. Perfect spacing and coloring. The abstraction of an idea, translated from my imagination to visual imagery. I added my name at the bottom, perfect against the black background. I wrapped the black, white and gray all the way around the cover. It really looked cool. I came up with some text for the back. I even did a larger version of the cover for a dust jacket for a hardcover version that will not be sold. It’s for personal use and may be auctioned off at some point in the future.
In summation, if you can’t do it well, hire a professional. Your cover truly is your one and only shot at a first impression. A horrible cover and title could damn you to obscurity for all time. Of course, once they dig into your words, the story contained within better meet or exceed expectations. But, hey, at least they cracked the cover.