Even Book Covers Need Facelifts

As I have been trumpeting (excuse the noise), I released a new novel, Aftershock, this week. The book’s cover is the result of a deliberate and sustained back and forth between me and Alicia Neal, the illustrator, on all aspects of image, design, color and typography. You can read all about that process in this post on the dandy writer’s site, WriterUnboxed. The final cover took a lot of work and time, but it was worth it.

Choosing Aftershock’s cover—and finally publishing the dang thing: it only took eight years—made me revisit the cover of my first novel, All Roads Are Circles. That too was a process of give and take with the illustrator, who did approach the vision I initially had for the book’s cover, but didn’t quite get there. I take responsibility for that.

I didn’t work with her in the same way I worked with Alicia, which was to initially give her a number of model covers that exemplified aspects of design and emotional impact that intrigued me and move from there. Nor did we go over the iterations of the cover with the same amount of fine deliberation that went on between Alicia and me.

Not Quite Capturing the Fall

What I wanted in the cover was some metaphorical sense of fall and possible redemption. The novel’s final chapters are set in an apple orchard, where the protagonist has besmirched himself morally. There’s a close-to-final scene where he offers up an apple to a woman in the orchard. I wanted some resonance with Adam and Eve’s moment in the Garden, where as you recall an apple played a meaningful part.

But the imagery of what I accepted as the final cover above didn’t quite hold that feeling. However, I was impatient to get book out there (never a good idea, my writer friends) and I settled for a cover that was adequate, but not inspiring. To repeat: my fault, not that of the illustrator, whom I sure could have moved the piece forward.

Will Using Stock Images Put You in the Stocks?

Feeling good about Aftershock’s cover made me want to work again with Circles. This time, I wanted a photographic image and not an illustration. Hitchhiking is a major theme in the book, and I thought I’d have a strong image of my own from somewhere on the road. Nope. So I spent a day or so on free and paid image sites, and finally settled on the one that’s the lead image for this post.

That’s an inexpensive iStock image that allows royalty-free commercial use. The photo worked perfectly for the feeling of a forlorn hitchhiker on a lonely road. It was also large enough to wrap around for both a spine and a back cover. My galpal Alice, who has good experience with graphic design, worked it up into the cover you see. I searched for it using Google’s reverse image search to see if it appeared on any book covers, but couldn’t find evidence for that or from other searches.

On the other hand, there’s ample evidence that using a stock photo on a cover might not be a good idea. Though the image I used is free of the licensing dangers expressed here, it might indeed be on a book cover somewhere that I couldn’t find, making my book a clone of sorts. (Here’s another piece on the appropriateness of stock images that’s softer on the perils.)

Anyway, I think I’m covered. (And don’t get any ideas about using that image for your hitchhiking novel, because I will turn off the electricity at your house and you won’t be able to get any of Justin Bieber’s tweets any longer.)

You’re a Novel’s Character: Push the Conflict, Sí or No?

Terrace viewjpg

Evening over San Miguel de Allende, Minutes Before a Storm Busted Loose

Writers are reliant on conflict in their stories; something must be surmounted (or not), questioned, circumvented, abandoned, left to wither. So much of reader engagement is the revealing of the layers of resolve (or not) in a character as they push against existence, whether their challenge or their adversary is some part of themselves, an acknowledged enemy, a societal crack, an unseen force. How the characters engage with their nemeses (or not) and the consequences of that engagement are at the core of most novels, whether literary or commercial.

Sometimes it’s fun to imagine yourself as the character in one of your novels, tilting your lance at battlements, or perhaps at the laundry. Besides the difficult suspension of disbelief there, the problem with accurately envisioning yourself as a novel’s character is that much of your time might be spent with dealing with a balky mouse, wondering if that modest pain you have in a molar is a cavity, and facing that laundry. The challenge of the laundry must be met, but it’s not quite like Huck Finn sailing down the river to flee from those dunderheads trying to sivilize him.

That real-life stuff isn’t all that novelistic. As Elmore Leonard said of his work, “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” We all want to skip the laundry.

But when you travel to a place that you’ve never been before, particularly a place that is vivid, dramatic, and not that of your native land, the setting alone can provide an exotic backdrop or stage for a character’s choices. How do you behave there, where you’ve never been? How do others behave, walk, talk, gesture, argue, kiss? Since I’m house-sitting in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, an extraordinarily colorful city of deep history and picturesque sights, it’s easier to fantasize that I’m in a novel, perhaps one by Graham Greene, where a shady character’s gesture with a cigarette in a lively café implies there will be a mysterious death tonight. Or at least some exceptional margaritas.

A Character in a Balmy State of Suspension

Novels often go in pulses of dramatic action and lull, charges and retreats, tension and release. Last night, my character’s place in the exotic city was in the balmy state of suspension. My sweetheart Alice and I walked down the winding cobblestone roads from our place high above the city center to a nice hotel restaurant just off the main plaza. Alfresco dining in a bright courtyard filled with tall, fruited trees, flitting birds and beautiful stone arches supporting the second floor, all painted variants of a washed tangerine.

A great meal, with cognac after, since that’s what characters in novels do (or not). Because the hotel housed a nice tobacconist, and I was in Mexico, where where they don’t fear the corruption of Castro’s commies, I was able to buy a lovely little Habano cigar, a demitasse Montecristo. Up, up the winding cobblestones at dusk, big clouds gathering. Up, up the tight, treacherous third-floor inner staircase to the deck. Down, down on the deck swing. Stogie lit, check. Malbec accompaniment, check. Incredible view of the city below, lights beginning to twinkle, clouds roiling, check. La vida es buena.

And then, the unexpected conflict: winds suddenly whipping, and a blasting downburst of rain, orchestrated by sky-filling, snapping lightning and a cracking series of thunderclaps like a bomb going off. Flee! So, my character, smug in his full-bellied comfort, ended up smoking his coveted cigar in the first-floor courtyard, hunkered under a concrete garage overhang which steadily dripped down on his muttering head. But it was a Cuban—I had to finish it.

Later, back in the steamy house, I did enjoy the thought that my novelist didn’t want my character to get quite so comfortable. Where’s the narrative interest in that?

By the way, today I really did do the laundry. Sometimes the joke is on your character, sometimes it’s on you.