Cover Up: Exploring and Designing Book Covers

It’s been a while since my last post.  I can justify this, though, since I’ve still been writing – my novella The Witching Hours is now complete and live for download on Amazon.  It’s been a really enjoyable experience: taking a story from its first few pages to the length of a full novella, editing it, having it proofread, revising and finally publishing it.  I’ll likely write a full-length post about the publishing process and how I walked myself through it, but this one’s about something more specific.  This is about designing book covers.

Never judge a book by its cover

‘Never judge a book by its cover’ goes the adage, but do we ever heed it?  A cover is part of the experience of reading; part of the experience of the book.  A picture paints a thousand words (a retaliatory adage there); it’s doing the job of your first few pages for you.  I’ve certainly been enticed by some particularly fine book covers; I’ve deliberated for hours in Waterstones over which edition of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline to go for and drooled over the specially-bound bibliographies of Lovecraft and Poe.  The fact is, as your browse the shelves of high-street bookshelves or the endless pages of ebook websites, the book’s cover is the feature that first grabs you. It first makes you want to read that book.  It deserves attention and, like the title, is part of the entirety of the work.

I was keen to design and create my book cover myself.  Not because I didn’t want to shell out for copyrighted images, but because I wanted The Witching Hours to be my work. Not just the words, but the entirety of it, the whole thing.  This also put a handy limit on the ambition of the cover. I’m not a graphic designer by a long stretch, and knowing and sticking to my limits would prevent the cover from being too convoluted.  Less is more.  Simplicity is the glory of expression, in the words of Walt Whitman.

Different covers for different genres

I particularly enjoyed examining the book covers of Terry Pratchett as I was casting around for ideas.  I enjoy Pratchett’s books; he’s wonderful at apying homage to multiple genres whilst often making a sharp point about some aspect of life.  They work as fantasies, comedies, parodies and even social commentaries.  It might be impossible to encapsulate all this in one cover but that’s fine. Pratchett’s books have been released with different covers.  I’ll use one of my favourites, Mort, as an example.

My own copy of Mort (on the left) looks very much like a fantasy novel.  Though less colourful than some of Pratchett’s other books, it’s kinetic.  Its characters are caricatures with exaggerated features, keeping company with the archetypes of the high fantasy genre. Think swinging weaponry, mountaintop castles and the perhaps inevitable barely-contained boobs of a tag-along maiden.  Reading the book, it becomes apparent that this display is as much satire as it is serious.  But it’s highly at odds with the recent re-release of the Discworld books as striking, minimal, black editions.  This matches the book’s more sober aspect and fits its musings over death and the passage of time.  Special editions of some of the Death-themed books have also been released that have a wonderful tactile quality to them. Regretably, not something that can be transferred to an ebook.

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Namesakes and Non de Plumes: How to Title a Book

I’m on the verge of releasing my novella to its first reader for feedback. I’ve just finished the final proofread, and I’m satisfied that it’s free from any narrative inconsistencies and, as far as I can tell, and glaring grammatical errors. There are few places I feel the story drags or derails slightly, but I’ll wait to see if my first wave of readers pick up on these; it’s hard to judge the pacing of a book when you’ve seen ‘behind the scenes’, as it were. There’s one part of the story that has just kept changing though, and that’s the title. How do you title a book?

I’m a great believer in a good title. I hate to see an artist call a piece of work ‘Untitled’. Maybe the first person to do it deserves credit for thinking outside the box, but in most cases it just seems lazy to me. A shortcut to profundity. But a great title can deeply enrich a work. It casts its shadow over the entire piece, and can either complement or contrast it. This goes for all forms of art: music, paintings, films… and of course books.

Small beginnings

My novella actually began as a vignette entitled One Night in England. Although conceived as a quick homage to Ben Wheatley’s idiosyncratic horror film A Field in England, I think it’s too close to its inspiration. They have the same rhythm, the same sense of anonymity, the same patriotic label. Mine would have to change.

I think rhythm is an important feature of how to title a book – and lack of rhythm can be effective too. There can be something clean and minimal about a one- or two-word title. Look at Lee Child’s books, which mimic the efficient and stripped-down character of Jack Reacher: Killing Floor. One Shot. 61 Hours. Stuart MacBride has the knack too: Cold Granite. Broken Skin. Punchy titles that don’t give too much away, but that promise lean adult stories. But longer titles have their charms too. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle is superb, possessing real gallop, and the Harry Potter series by J K Rowling employs longer, multisyllabic words in its titles to good effect. Philosopher. Prisoner. Deathly Hallows.

Genre conventions

I read a lot, but I have my favourite genres and my favourite authors – a few are name checked above. Out of all genres of fiction, the ones I read the most tend to be crime and horror. Crime novels tend to favour the snappy titles. MacBride’s are a good example, but Linwood Barclay has a few too: Fear the Worst. Never Look Away. The Accident. Mark Billingham: Sleepyhead. Scaredy Cat. Lazybones. The list goes on.

I enjoy classic horror too though – H. P. Lovecraft titles can be sprawling and evocative, as in the case of At the Mountains of Madness, The Dreams in the Witch House, The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Edgar Allan Poe favours a good gothic title: The Masque of Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. There’s a real sense of fervour in Poe’s titles: the examples above use assonance and alliteration to create something that really rolls off the tongue beautifully.

One of my favourite bands, Cradle of Filth, take Poe’s approach to titling their work and have produced some songs with gorgeously lavish titles: Thirteen Autumns and a Widow, Creatures that Kissed in Cold Mirrors, To Eve the Art of Witchcraft. Such hyperbolic phrases could be seen as a shopping list of buzz-words, but I think the seductive rhythms of the titles evoke images of over-decorated yet artistic architecture and dark houses full of interesting bric-a-brac. They match the music of course – decadent heavy metal, moonlit by ghostly choirs and keyboards.

Contemporary and classic

My novella had a working title, once I realised that One Night In England wouldn’t cut it: The Curse of the Milbury Witch. I think the former fits alongside the modern, snappy mode of titling stories. With the exception of the proper noun, the words are monosyllabic – simple words you would use in primary school.

The Curse… is a more lurid affair – it puts its cards on the table: this is a horror story about a witch. It’s reminiscent of Hammer Horror (shades of The Curse of the Werewolf, The Shadow of the Cat, perhaps) an aesthetic now seen as retro. It appeals to me for both these reasons; I like it when things are informed by the past and I like things to deliver what they promise. The presence of a proper noun in the title is an interesting point too, and a double-edged sword: it lends the tale a more personal slant, but might be alienating for the same reason (using Milbury as a setting is something of an artistic stroke, incidentally. Milbury is a fictional version of the town of Avebury and the setting for Children of the Stones – possibly the scariest children’s series ever).

Conversely, I feel that a few recent film releases have been too vague in their titling – the similarly monikered Thor: The Dark World and Star Trek: Into Darkness are particular bugbears of mine – favouring generic subtitles barely more effective than sticking a 2 at the end.

How to title a book

I decided on a title, in the end. The Witching Hours. It appeals to me in both the modern and the traditional senses – it’s short and fairly snappy, but it gets that oh-so-important ‘witch’ in there. It will deliver what it promises. It’s a proper idiom too – the witching hour is midnight – and this gives it a bit of familiarity, which we are naturally drawn to. My story doesn’t actually take place at midnight: more the early hours, the hour of the wolf. Hence the pluralisation. I think it fits the tone of the story too, which mixes two time periods and references both modern and classic horror tropes.

The cake is iced. Time to let someone taste it.

Little by Little… Novel Word Counts

I’ve been a bit quiet on the blogging front for the last couple of weeks, but there’s a good reason. I’ve been working on a short story; a tale that began life as One Night In England back in October of 2014. Today I finished it. I call it a short story but in actual fact it’s the longest thing I’ve ever written, at 27,000 words. I also say I finished it, but I feel the ending is a little truncated and that a redraft is in order before I even let some willing volunteers take a peek at it. Nevertheless, I’m chuffed. I’ve completed a coherent piece of writing that has exceeded the length of anything I’ve written before. Because novel word counts are important.

Size matters

At 27,000 words, I feel that my story is in embedded in a no-man’s land of categorisation. It’s not a novel, but I feel like it’s a little more than a short story. A novella, then? Where does one class end and another begin?

A quick scan through the top Google results on the subject shows varying results, but it seems for typical adult novels word counts are somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 words: huge in comparison to my miniature tale. But heartening, in a way – writing my novella has taught me a few things, and one of them is how many words go into describing an event or period of time. The whole story is housed within a twenty four hour day with room to spare; the events of a single afternoon and the following evening in this case adding up to somewhere between a quarter and a third of an adult novel’s length.

Of course, this isn’t a rule of word counts – it just so happens that there was enough going on in my story that it added up to what it does. Some of it may not even make the final cut.

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Endless Forms: Mediums of Fiction

Earlier this week I listened to Red Barchetta by Rush. Haven’t heard it? Give it a listen. Red Barchetta is a narrative song about a future in which a ‘Motor Law’ bans many vehicles, such as everyday cars. Every week, the story’s protagonist sneaks out to his uncle’s old farm and takes an old sports car, a Red Barchetta, for a spin on the country roads. The music ramps up in intensity as the car picks up speed, and cymbals crash in time with guitar crunches as the Barchetta is spotted and chased by modern air cars. This would make a brilliant story, I think to myself. But then, it’s already a story – there are different mediums of fiction. Red Barchetta is a story written in sound instead of sentences.

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Winter Chills: The Christmas Ghost Story

’tis the season,” I cry, wolfing another mince pie.

Another mulled wine, Liam?

’tis the season!

What shall we watch now?

Ah. Well. Christmas really would be incomplete without a Christmas ghost story, wouldn’t it? ‘tis the season for a wintertime chiller: snuggling down in front of the television with a haunted house and a hot chocolate, ready for a scare or two. I think the Christmas ghost story has a seasonal charm as essential to the festive period as Christmas dinner. A ghost story is both a pleasant diversion from the happy festivities and an important complement to them. And when better to indulge in some spooky atmosphere than in the bleak midwinter?

Chills and thrills

A ghost story is distinguishable from a horror, and the two should be distinguished in as far as the Christmas ghost story is concerned. While horror films are, well, horrifying (just look at Black Christmas), ghost stories should be unsettling and creepy. Horror implies a level of graphic detail, of explicitly horrifying material. Ghosts work through implication, through effect. Stretched shadows, creepy creaks, pallid things half-glimpsed through windows…

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