Category Archives: Writer’s Journey

B(u)y the Cover: Your Tale’s First Thousand Words

This is part of my library-talk series around the writerly life, and I must say at the outset– it works much better there.

I like to talk to individual attendees, hone in on the genre and elements that concern them, and hear their feedback. Online, I can only hope for the last of those three if you leave me a comment. I guarantee I’ll come back to you!

Start with the Bottom Line: People will absolutely, positively, and mercilessly judge your book by its cover. Fair, schmair, they are going to. You did. We all do. Remember the cover of your favorite books? You bet. Remember any of the ones you didn’t buy? Bet not.


You’re Focused on the Words, Great: But Don’t Skip the Ones that Come First

Quite properly, you’re thinking about getting to that final page of, you know, the writing: popping down the period and adding “The End”. It’s a worthy goal! But you know it’s not done. This book has to be published and marketed too. It hardly matters if you have an agent and a major publisher lined up, that will still be largely (mostly) (alright, fine, ALL) your job. Most authors I speak to are aware of this and they work at (or at least fret about) the use of social media, query letters, promotion. But I think in the stampede to get from book to back shelf, there’s one crucial chore where many authors spend too little time and energy.

What the heck will be on the front?

The cover of the book often gets short shrift from aspiring and independent authors for a variety of reasons. Most don’t feel they have the talent, and that’s in part because they think the cover is nothing else than the artwork. Some don’t think they have the time, which is kind of odd because no bestseller in the last century went to the Barnes and Noble under a clear plastic binder. What, exactly, do you think writing a story comprises if you don’t believe there will somehow be a cover on it?

Like it or not- and I’m sensing you don’t- the first words of your tale are the picture the reader sees on the front. In fact, it’s the first thousand words of your tale. But you haven’t written that yet! You hadn’t honestly thought about it at all, perhaps.

And that leads to a dangerous idea about book covers: that someone else is going to handle it for you. Dangerous because, in the end, they might.

Traditional Publication Can Help: But Maybe You Shouldn’t Look!

There is nothing wrong with looking for traditional publication. And if you get a contract, one of the most likely aspects of that deal will be that some load of cover design will be taken off your hands. Whether you like it or not.

Because face it, you might not have thought much about the cover, or thought that you personally could do it. But there’s most likely an image there. Or several. And a SLEW of images that are Not My Cover, yes? Your book is unique, a genre-shattering masterwork and the cover deserves to reflect that.

But trad-pub will resolutely not care. They’ve got their own people and will quite likely impose the view of the ones they’re paying over yours.

And here’s a thing: you can accuse them of being conservative, or even chicken. But this stuff seems to work. Traditional publishing knows there are certain images, colors, effects that work to suggest to a potential reader that this book is for them.

Making it Rain Down in Africa

Image courtesy @SimonMStevens
Image courtesy @SimonMStevens

Take a gander at this image, with thanks to Mr. Michael Silver who assembled it years ago. Thirty-six bestseller-type books from all genres, which happen to be set in or concern the continent of Africa. Fifty-seven countries, 900 million people, millions of years of human occupation. And this is all that means to trad-pub. Orange to red backgrounds, sun ALWAYS setting, banyan trees, giraffes and guys who haven’t shaved. Must have three of those elements, and then you’re good. Everything from Singing Grass to Solomon’s Mines, but don’t try to tell THEM what means “Africa” to a reader. Deal with it.

But hey, trad-pub! I’m not spitting on winning a nice deal and getting their help. Just something to consider about the way you control the tale. So, what happens when you don’t win a deal and yet still want to publish? Still think you don’t have to do the work?

If so, you’re not alone. There are some, shall we say, incredible book covers out there these days, from authors who I guess just figured people would flip open and read the story. Don’t be one of those authors. Or actually, these…

More to It

First off, let’s recognize something I hinted at earlier. A book cover is more than just the artwork. Hard to be precise but certainly most book covers include:

  1. Cover art
  2. Title
  3. Author name
  4. Sub-title and/or Series Name
  5. Praise and Plaudits
  6. Other Branding and Design Elements (⇐ Yeah, this is the big one you’re missing)

Let me briefly say, you should also attend to the spine (whether you would turn the book sideways to read the title, that kind of thing) and of course there’s blurb material on the back, with maybe a cover-wrap of the art work, a photo of you, etc. But for now let’s stick with the front cover only.

Who, in their right mind, thought it was a good idea to run with this cover for a book?

I mean, can anyone out there tell me what it’s about? Children’s story? But then why a word like “Drover”? Fantasy (purple dog)? One attendee suggested “maybe it’s a sticker book” and I think that’s genius, because look at the peel-n’-stick quality to the icons! I mean, real cow, miniature sheep and then cartoon kid?

Let me stop and make two disclaimers:

  1. I have never met any of the authors whose covers I’m using as bad examples here. I mean them no great harm, and I did not search them out. The oh-no covers I use in this series are all at least three years old to my knowledge. These are drawn from a site called, no really, Every week or so they put up new “winners” and if you don’t listen to me you could be getting some extra exposure there.
  2. My own work will also be used as an example of the not-so-great in this series, so hold onto your flensing  knife until you get there and see if I’ve been fair. Look it up, it’s horrible.

Two Things Your Cover MUST Do

I’ll go into more detail and use examples in the following article, but since you’ve all been so patient I’ll give you the sneak peek now. Your book cover needs to do two things, which in the end are quite closely related:

  1. Send a Message
  2.  Look Professional

My early covers did neither. I feel better about them now and by the way, they sell better too. But, you ask, what kind of message? How do I KNOW it’s professional? I’m very glad you did, and will give you some thoughts next time.

For now, look at these two and decide– really good, or sort of good? Kind of bad, or “Drover’s Luck” level bad? HINT: These are authors I HAVE met.


The Past, and Other Things You Can’t Really Trust

Thou art wise to consider such a synthesis, Solemn. There are many worlds, but only a single nature.

-Final Judgement, The Eye of Kog

You’d think after a decade of chronicling I’d be out of surprises around the actual process.

I’m old, first of all, and how many new tricks would I be inclined to show an interest in? Plus, epic fantasy in many ways isn’t about discovering anything new. We explore the classic truths about ourselves and the joy comes of recognizing old friends despite their outlandish disguises. Lots of reasons. But when I came to the desk with intent to write, I figured I was pretty much doing the same thing. A beloved, well known activity.

And I am. But…

This Time, Different- The Test of Fire

An earlier test of fire.

The current WiP is what I pretentiously call a demi-sequel. When I decided I wanted to chronicle the Lands of Hope, the first thing I drafted, the very first thing, was a ramshackle adventure that turned into The Plane of Dreams. But the thing I called it, the working title when I first wrote it in 2008, was “Prologue to The Test of Fire”. I was working from my instinct of course in those days, and from one other important thing.


Tons of them. I have maps, and character descriptions (let’s just call them that), and detailed information about lots of locations where dark secrets of Despair were buried (often literally). I have data, if you will, on what the monsters are like, how magic spells and miracles work, how long travel takes depending on conveyance. I have of course the figurines that I’ve showed you in other columns. And I have primary source material (just go with me here), letters and journal entries and first-hand accounts to draw on about What Really Happened. Some of it not in my own handwriting, let’s just leave it there OK?

When I started to chronicle, in many ways I simply went to the bulls-eye, the place where these notes of mine were the thickest. That produced the tale I eventually rounded off and called The Plane of Dreams in 2011. I really enjoyed the job. There were just two things that I found a bit frustrating about the process.

One was where the tale actually began.

The other was where it ended.

Long story about the first. I’ll eventually write another novel to answer it. For now, this: I’m working on the book that comes after The Plane of Dreams, and I’m working from notes. Got it?

“I Only Know What Happens”

This is the battle-cry of my chronicling: for more than 35 years I’ve known the giant arc of the plot around the Lands of Hope. Notes, no notes, that part makes no difference: it’s always been there, like whatever those programs are that constantly use 4 or 5% of the CPU on your PC . I’ve gone to sleep idly wondering about this character, that event. Years of this, before I even thought about trying to write it out for others.

I think the word for this is ‘insane’. But happily so. This is simply part of my life. I couldn’t forget it with a gun to my head.

But that is all merely plot, so to speak, and of course it’s not terribly detailed. You can TELL your friend about your favorite movie, the one you’ve seen ten or twenty times, sure. But can you write out the screenplay, shot by shot? I blogged once about the three levels of writing: Plot, Character and Theme. I came into The Test of Fire with the plot practically tattooed onto my brain. But writing out the details, revealing character and perhaps even showing (discovering, honestly) the meaning of the tale… that’s where it gets interesting.

Thought I Knew These Guys…

Recently I finished writing the beginning (maybe the first third or so of the tale), and now I’m into the middle-meat of the novel. Here, my notes became very polished, much more detailed, from the main character’s PoV. In essence, a first draft. Or perhaps a kind of Reader’s Digest version of the novel itself.

Except the novel hadn’t yet been written. Is that actually a thing? Did anyone in history write up an abstract of the tale before the tale itself? Without meaning to follow up!

And just look at all the missing details! Mostly about character, of course. So far I’ve gone through about one page of the old draft (from more than 20 years ago, when I thought I was saying goodbye to the marvelous interactions I was having with the Lands). It’s spot-on for plot (one minor exception with an event coming a shade earlier in the non-existent timeline than previously believed). 

But what I’m adding is mainly about character. Who said what, more of that. The way the hero Qerlak feels, of course. Now it’s four and a half pages; it flows, it makes better sense, and I dare to think it will affect the reader.

The More Things (Sort of) Change?

Is it different now? I retreat to the words of Pooh-Bah in The Mikado:

“Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”

Of course, Pooh-Bah had very nearly bungled the whole deal with his “corroborative detail”, so this is not entirely a joke.

I simply cannot reel in the words to describe how utterly strange it feels now, to be looking at an absolutely authentic account from two decades ago, and then changing it so dramatically. What was correct? Can both be right? How can I be working so steadily and smoothly, yet adding so much? I mean, remembering LESS over time is how memory usually works…

I do feel I know them better by now. And in the furthest reaches of my delusion–by the way, this IS a delusion, let us have no delusions about that–but sometimes I even start to believe I’m seeing something about the theme of the tale, of what it all means and which informs the action and the characters. That’s a comforting notion.

Look both ways

The main hero Qerlak is learning about the proper code of behavior for his life. As a younger son of the nobility, he never had to worry that he would one day be responsible for leading a foef. He joined an adventuring band, the Tributarians, and was known as the chivalrous one among commoners. He excelled, gained fame and enough fortune (almost) to buy a vacant knighthood (this happens during The Plane of Dreams). He THINKS he’s retiring. He thinks the noble’s code will be the beacon whereby he guides his life.

He’s wrong on both counts. Qerlak, and the other heroes in this story, must learn that there is another code, the adventurer’s code that they have committed to (perhaps unknowingly). And you might be able to guess how well those go together.

The Way Forward

No stopping both ways!

Choices to be made! Consequences to be suffered for those aforementioned choices. Impact to the unsuspecting reader following on from that, and more than likely, a new set of choices to be made. Therein, not to put too fine a point on it, lies a tale.

One that, it turns out, I’m not yet completely familiar with. THAT’s the strangeness, in a nutshell. I’m the Alleged Real World’s foremost authority on what happens during The Test of Fire, and even I’m unsure–a little bit–how this will all turn out. How utterly delightful.

And you thought only readers could enjoy my books.