Book Cover As Writing Tool

CoverAsStrategyDocI talk to many authors – both online and IRL – and I am always surprised by the number of them who tell me they don’t come up with a title until they’re done. What? I can understand not knowing the final title until then, but not even having a label for your project? Apparently, it boggles their minds. So when I tell them that I actually come up with an entire cover concept – before I write a single word – you can imagine the kind of blank stares I get.

One writer friend told me that she wouldn’t bother doing this because she doesn’t get inspired by visual thinking, but this is not about thinking visually. It’s about focusing on the user experience. For me, the cover embodies all the essential elements of what the book will be: mood, tag line, premise, and (most importantly) reader experience, as evidenced by the fake reviews I write as part of the layout.

Most authors understand that the cover is a marketing device. But that’s about sales and whatnot. Aside from that specifically commercial function, there’s another thing the cover does: it tells readers what kind of experience they’re going to have on the pages within. If that promised experience is one that appeals to them, they’ll probably open the book up. They might even buy it. But if they do, and you fail to deliver on the promise made by your cover, they probably won’t ever buy a book from you again.

So how do you ensure that you put a cover on your book that conveys the intended experience? The experience you actually delivered? From my POV, the answer is simple. Start with the experience, and then write to deliver. That’s not as mercenary as it may sound. I’m not talking about choosing the moods, trends, or experiences that are popular, and then kowtowing to those conventions. I’m talking about a thoroughly legitimate creative process: decide what you intend to deliver, and then organize your thoughts and your work in a way that ensures (or at least, increases the likelihood) that you’ll deliver on those intentions.

An Example

Working cover for Oath Keeper

Working cover for Oath Keeper

Let’s look at how this came together on the soon-to-be-released Oath Keeper. About ten months ago, I was mired in the middle of a story that wasn’t working. I had written almost 300,000 words, struggling to write my way out of the various corners I had written myself into with Strange Places, but wanting to do so in a way that was both exciting in its own right, remained faithful to the original story arc, and transitioned the action nicely to the big finish I have always planned for Book 3.

And I was pulling my hair out.

My problem (I see now, in hindsight) was that I was focusing on what I wanted to put into the story. But I was missing a crucial component. I was not paying enough attention to what I wanted readers to get out of the story.

At about that time, I was also working on a short story – a side event taken from the tangled weave of the main Frankendraft. And as part of the process of getting that short story ready to launch, I designed a cover for it. But to my surprise, the cover just sort of built itself. The image came in a breeze, conveying just the sort of intensity and mystique I was aiming for. The tag line jumped on board and gave the whole thing intrigue. Even the fake review quotes came to hand just when I needed them, articulating how I wanted readers to feel when they were done.

That’s when I realized that this simple cover was telling me something way more important than just what the short story was about. It was telling me what the new book itself was trying to become. Or more correctly, it was telling me what experience my fans really needed this next book to become.

And in that revelation, everything changed.

That same afternoon, I sat down and redid the cover. Not for the short story, but this time, for the novel. Then I printed that cover out and posted it on the wall. The next day, I started from the beginning, taking bits and pieces of the Frankendraft, dropping in notes about new scenes and side arcs that would be needed, deleting vast chunks of useless text. And by the end of that day, I had a baby giraffe, struggling to stand up. (Okay, a novel framework that actually did everything I was trying to do, but a baby giraffe makes for a cuter image, no?) Unlike the Frankendraft, this baby giraffe of mine looked like it might actually learn to stand up, rather than flopping about in useless agony, damaging the furniture and then dying in a pathetic pool of loneliness and self hatred. But I digress.

What made this sudden optimism possible – what allowed me to let go of all the story plans, side characters, bits of witty repartee, etc. – was that challenging glare staring at me from the cover of the book. I knew what attitude I needed to convey. I knew where the drama needed to come from. I even knew some of the visuals that would need to play out along the way. And within a week, I had written so much, and stayed so focused, that I knew I was on the home stretch.

All because I had finally pulled it all together in a cover design. Yes, it’s visual, but it’s a visual layout that includes text, too. It’s a one-stop-shopping summary of everything I wanted that book to be.

Reproducing The Results

So, was that just a lucky stroke? Something I needed to do for that project, but that had no bearing on anything else I would write? I decided to try it on my next book project, to find out. As the final draft wound down on Oath Keeper, I started throwing some attention to the next project I had warming up on a side burner. So again, I built a cover to encapsulate everything I was trying to deliver with that project. And when Oath Keeper went into alpha and then beta, I shifted gears to the new project – the draft of which is now 3/4 finished, just one month later. And the new cover process? I think I like it. It really seems to help me stay focused. Not on what *I* want from my work, but on what my *readers* want. (Or at least, what I want them to want, sort of. :-)

In fact, with this current project nearing its unexpectedly rapid completion, I decided to try this yet again for the next one I have in mind. Yesterday, I put together the working cover for my as-yet unannounced science fiction title. And whoa boy! If my cover process works its magic again, this baby is going to be one hell of a wild ride! A baby shark, or maybe a eaglet, rather than just some shaking giraffe wannabe. (See what I mean about different moods for different projects?)

Anyway, do I expect these inspirational covers to survive to become actual covers I publish? Hell no! They might, but that’s up to my publisher (for the projects that have one) or my design team (for the projects I will publish myself). But that’s not the point. Even when I am going to completely throw out that initial design, can you think of a better design brief to hand to an artist than the cover design your book is based on?

I can’t. And that’s why I think this process is now ready to be dipped in bronze and set on the mantel. This is fun! And it works.

So if you’ve ever struggled to keep your eye on the prize, to keep a focused sense of what this whole book is about and why you started it in the first place, I recommend thinking strongly about the reader experience you’re trying to construct. And then build yourself a working cover to try to encapsulate all that. If you’re at all like me, it may just be what your doctor ordered.

One important lesson that shooting pool teaches us about writing novels.
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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.