Judging a Book by Its Cover

I reached a huge milestone recently when my agent sold my supernatural young adult novel, Aftersight.  It was a moment for high-fives, champagne, and general celebration, but after all that there was work to do.

As the content editing commenced, I began to understand that my story, which previously had only been words on a page, would soon be a book. It would be something tangible, something visual.

wrongful-death-novel-robert-dugoni-book-cover-artI’ll admit it, I was nervous about what the cover art would look like. My publisher graciously allowed me to have input on the cover design, an excellent perk, but it was still difficult to imagine what the process would be like. Contrary to my previous assumptions, the cover artist doesn’t actually read the book, relying instead on plot summaries and character profiles to come up with a visual that will sell the story. Would that be enough for her to conjure a compelling cover design?

There is a fine line between a truly good cover and something cheesy, or perhaps worse, something flat and lifeless. Every book is different. Ideally, you want an image that will appeal to your readers, but that’s pretty vague, isn’t it?

“A good cover tells a story,” New York Times best-selling author Robert Dugoni said at this year’s Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. To illustrate the point, he held up the cover of the paperback version of his novel, Wrongful Death. There an American flag folded into a triangle, as if from a soldier’s funeral, rests on a rough stone background. In the center of the flag is a smoking bullet hole.

What story does that cover tell? It’s probably something about the military, something about death (if the title didn’t already make that obvious). It’s not just a bullet hole, but a smoking bullet hole. There’s action to come, something yet unresolved.

“A good cover asks a question,” literary agent Sally Harding told me. “It’s not about trying to summarize your story or even depicting a key scene.” A good cover is like a door slightly ajar, just enough to give you a glimpse of what lies on the other side, just enough to prompt you to open it and explore the world beyond.

Weeks of content editing and line editing had come and gone. I was reviewing the galley pages when the email arrived with the subject line Cover art for Aftersight.

Here it was. The Moment had finally arrived. I took a deep breath, double-clicked the email, and was rewarded with a cover image that far surpassed even my best expectations. Did it tell a story? Maybe. Did it ask a question? Most definitely.

That was the moment when my novel, which had always been an amorphous blob, an idea, finally became real.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine‘s Author Blog.

_________________________________________________________

Author Photo 2 Square - Copy copy

Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.

 URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com

tumblr_inline_msw15rad8T1qz4rgp

Write the Next One

You’ve done it! You’ve written a novel. You’ve made several passes, revised it, shown it to beta readers, and made more adjustments. Maybe you’ve even handed it to a book doctor and made a few final, surgical tweaks. At last, time to find representation. So you researched agents who were interested in your genre, honed your query letter, and began sending out emails. Wonderful! Marvelous!

It’s time to write the next one.

But, wait! The energy that it took to find appropriate agents and finalize the query letter ate up all your normal writing time. And, wow, it was quite a slog those last few months finalizing the manuscript. You deserve a break, right? It will be nice to have your mornings for a while. Maybe you can start working out again, lose those five pounds you put on toward the end of the novel writing, when nothing mattered but finishing up the final draft.

Thus the Break From Writing begins. A few weeks slip into a few months and still you haven’t started a new project. Maybe you’ve played around with a few ideas, but nothing has come together quite yet, nothing into which you can really sink your teeth.

I’ve seen it happen before, to friends, colleagues, even me. You have a list of Agents You Haven’t Heard Back From Yet and every one of them represents hope that this will be the Big Break and you can sit back and start writing sequels. And so the writing stops and the waiting begins, even if you aren’t quite aware that you’re waiting.

How long has it been since your last project ended?

Now more than ever it’s important to work on the next novel. Nothing reduces the sting of a rejection email more than having transferred your emotions to a new, active project. When you’re really invested in your novel, writing that novel is all that matters.  Think of it like dating again after a breakup. It’s time to move on.

But it’s tough, you say. Starting a new novel takes thought and research. Maybe you want to create a bunch of new character profiles, outline the first act, or investigate more about the setting of your next story. You’ve been doing that stuff and all of it takes time.

Here’s the secret: You don’t need all that stuff to start writing a new novel. No one says you need to begin on page one and move head to page two. Do you have scene ideas? Write them. Ideas for dialogue? Jot them down. A particularly compelling description buzzing through your brain? Capture it on paper. But start! Make an investment in something new.

Here’s what I do when maybe I’m not ready to start writing the next novel, but I need to get going: I write a high-level summary, scene by scene. I start with a new scene, write anywhere from a paragraph to a few pages on what it’s about, then I write the next one, and the next. If I have ideas for dialogue, I add them. Sometimes an unexpected idea occurs to me later in the process, so I’ll go back and revise old scene summaries. In a way it’s like writing the next book without the writing part.

I’ve used this method to jump start the process and successfully get the next project going. Even if it’s not how you normally like to work, it feels great. And if you have research to do or character profiles to flesh out, it doesn’t mean you can’t do them simultaneously.

Trust me, it’s not a waste of time.

Writing breaks that last weeks and months and maybe years. That is a waste of time.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine‘s Author Blog.

_________________________________________________________

Author Photo 2 Square - Copy copy

Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.

 URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com

tumblr_inline_msw15rad8T1qz4rgp