Uncovered – On finding the perfect book cover and losing it

Twelve months ago I was going to do a blog about cover design for The Sky So Heavy. But I couldn’t because I was just feeling too many feelings. I’ve always found the process of book-cover design overwhelming. This goes back to high school days and ‘design the cover’ assignments. The expectation that I would put on myself would be crippling, so determined was I to get it perfect. I was a drawer and a reader, so it should have been my thing, right? RIGHT??!! To get it wrong was unthinkable. THE SHAME! The potential for me to produce a work of stunning insight was only equalled by the potential to fail. (I’m not sure that was as profound as I’d hoped it to be. See? I’m struggling. This is why I haven’t written about this before.)

When my own book is concerned it’s about a thousand times worse – if that’s even possible without full psychological breakdown. (First World Problems, anyone?) Imagine if you had to sit down and decide what you wanted your child to look like. That’s the kind of brain explosion I experience when it comes to discussions about cover concepts.

If Fin got his shirt off more I could have had something like this for The Sky So Heavy. Shame.

Just to be clear, writers generally don’t design covers for their own books. (If you’re unsure as to why, check out the self-published book covers tumbler. Or just look to the left. There’s a reason professional designers have to go to uni for three years.) Book cover design is tricky and could well be the catalyst for a full-scale psychological breakdown if the level of neurosis exhibited by my fourteen-year-old self is anything to go by. But editors do have a discussion with the author about what they would like or any ideas they might have. As well as what they don’t want.

For The Sky So Heavy I really had no idea. I wanted to put it in the too-hard basket. I eventually nutted some vague ideas out with my editor and we ended up with something that I don’t love, but which seems to be selling well. Which means I’m finding my readers, so the cover’s done it’s job. It’s also worth pointing out that the process took place in the first year of my youngest son’s life, so it’s fair to say I had other priorities and only so much (read: very little) head space to devote to the whole thing.

Then along comes book two – not a sequel, but a stand-alone on which I have worked, off and on, for the last nine years. I have rewritten The Protected completely, not once, but twice. I guess you could say I’m kind of attached to it. (UNDERSTATEMENT.) I have also been far more emotionally present during the whole publishing process this time around, compared to The Sky So Heavy. I won’t go into details, but if you understand the level of pressure I put on myself when it came to designing an imaginary book cover when I was in high school, you can probably guess how my brain copes with the pressure of raising a tiny helpless baby. It’s not pretty. (There’s not going to be a trilogy as far as that narrative is concerned.)

The initial design the publisher sent to me for this next book was one they were very keen on, but I was not. My reasons for disliking it were partly to do with ideas about gendered book covers and partly to do with my aversion to dark close ups of pretty girls’ faces. My editor was gracious and understanding, so sent me another alternative. Which I absolutely loved. Really, truly, loved. We were in agreement, it was done. Over the last two weeks I have gazed at it on and off for long slabs of time in which I probably should have been doing other things.

But then my editor discovered another YA book, newly released in the US, with the exact same stock photo on the cover.

So it’s back to the drawing board, quite literally.

I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, if you want to read more about cover design and the myriad of aesthetic travesties that have been created in its name I highly recommend Caustic Cover Critic. Here you will also find many examples of unfortunate cover double-ups that weren’t caught in time…

Cigars, Wayne’s World and the wisdom of NRL players

ImageA truly surreal thing has happened. My kind publishers have sent me a copy of my book, literally fresh off the press. It was an event which I have imagined many times over, often swiftly followed by a warning to myself not to get too attached to the idea. Getting a book published can be horrifyingly difficult, something I know too well after a brief stint as a publishing assistant. It was my job to sift through the unsolicited manuscripts, read synopses and more often than not, write rejection letters. In some ways it was one of the most valuable experiences of my life thus far. It taught me what not to include in a pitch, if nothing else. Having a novel published has always been my ultimate goal, but I have worked very hard to keep my expectations in check.

So a few days ago two copies of my book arrived and I held it in my hands and saw words on the pages that I had written. Truly surreal. Now that it is in print it will start a new journey all on its own which I will no longer have any control over. People will read it and the characters – which up until this point have only existed in my head – will enter those people’s imaginations. I have a very precise picture in my head of what these characters look and sound like, but my style of writing tends to be a touch sparse and I haven’t included all these details in the book. How weird to think that for others these characters may look and sound completely different.

And what will people think of it? I’ve written about this before, but I tend to imagine my stories being read by fat men smoking cigars. They read my work and laugh before setting it alight and shouting ‘What rot!’. (They are bald, wear grey suits and have panoramic views of New York from their offices – if you’re interested.) I’m not sure if any fat cigar smoking men have read my work and if they have, I’m pretty sure they’re probably a lot gentler than I give them credit for. I’m not sure it’s possible for anyone to be quite as critical of my work as I am.

Still, inevitable rejection by someone, somewhere is the reality of any creative pursuit. As many a NRL player and/or rapper has said ‘There always gonna be haters’ (sic). Some people are going to hate my novel. Maybe even people I know. The flip side of this, of course, is that some people are going to love it. And it’s these people that I’ve written it for, not  cigar smoking men in New York. (Pretty sure this mental image of mine was born out of Wayne’s World. Isn’t there a TV executive in a grey suit who nearly destroys Wayne and Garth’s artistic vision? Wayne’s World is an much overlooked meditation on the tension between artistic integrity and comercial success. True fact.)

Cigar smoking men aside* on July 24th The Sky So Heavy will be released. And that, for the moment, is more than enough.

Rewriting, bubbles and termites

Well blog readers, it’s been a while. Probably a lot longer than I anticipated, definitely a lot longer than I would have liked. Turns out caring for a four-year-old and a baby whilst rewriting a manuscript is actually quite time consuming. I am only able to write this now because the rewrite has gone back to my editor and my baby seems quite content to sit in his highchair while I type and intermittently toss him pieces of chopped-up grape*. 

Yes, you read correctly, dear reader: the rewrite of the manuscript that is to be published this year has gone back to my editor. Not only that, but she has read it and rather than call me and tell me the publisher has realised that I am actually ridiculous. She has instead told me she loves it and has sent it on for copy editing. This was a little unexpected because I did the rewriting in a strange sort of isolated bubble with no feedback from anyone at all. I sent it off to her just before Christmas without another soul reading a word, very unusual for me, but my husband and reader in chief was crazy busy with work so I took a punt.

For those unfamiliar with the grand process that is publication, once a manuscript has been accepted by a publisher an editor then writes a structural report. This is perhaps not entirely dissimilar to a structural report one may receive from a builder: a detailed analysis of everything that is right, but mostly wrong, with your dream house. The bits that are falling down, the holes in the overall support structure, the places where termites have began to gnaw in and consequently build their own little ornate castle-type thing which may be pretty to look at but is actually detrimental to your resale value and will need to be destroyed.

The process that follows this is the rewrite, where one takes on board the kind and sensitively-worded feedback offered by ones editor and proceeds to plug the holes, reshape particular characters and get rid of that weird bit coming off the side which is pretending to be a metaphor but is actually an entirely separate, overdeveloped entity that certainly doesn’t have council approval.

This process, for me, was completely different to that which I experienced drafting the original story. The first time round there’s no expectation, no precedent. Sure, you have dreams and ambitions that someone might actually read what you’re writing. But they might not. Sure you might hope that it might, just might, against all odds be (gasp!) published. But probably not, better off trying to win the lottery. There is a kind of freedom in this, a kind of abandonment. You’re just throwing things around to see what happens. It’s actually enjoyable.

Not to say that the rewriting process can’t be enjoyable. But this time, there’s a precedent, an expectation. People are going to read it. And they’re going to expect that it’s better than it was the last time around. And they know what they’re talking about too. They’re professional-type people with offices and meetings and spreadsheets and a work-wardrobe. They don’t work in a kind of cave with this morning’s jam smeared on their cheek. That’s kind of intimidating. 

Yet, there’s still the knowledge, a small sparkly thing in the back of ones mind, that these people believe in you enough to offer you a contract and, like, actual cash money. And goodness knows that’s never happened before. There’s also the fact that the people who are working on it are extremely lovely and sensitive to writers’ fragile egos.

So you pick over the manuscript, bounce ideas off your editor and try to look with fresh eyes at a story that you’ve read countless times. It can also be difficult to get into the headspace required to maintain the voice and atmosphere of the story, the internal picture that was so strong and vivid when you started writing the story, but now has become a little dull from endless revision. The Sky So Heavy is set in a nuclear winter, complete with power cuts and food shortages. Kind of tricky to imagine in December when you’re living by the beach and have spent the morning swimming in the sunshine. My trick was to listen to particular songs over and over while I wrote. (Mainly from Radiohead’s King of Limbs, but more on that later).

So now I wait to hear back from the copy editor and, the bit I am supremely excited about, see the mock-ups of the cover design. And while I am waiting I will keep you updated. Promise.

*Don’t despair, child-safety advocates, the grapes were chopped up and not chokable, also I don’t routinely feed my infant son as if he were a seagull or similar. Not that often… depends how busy I am.