Hello all! It has been a while, hasn't it? Well, I'm back, and with a vengeance! I've got a few things coming down the pipeline, some of which I'll be announcing soon, so keep your eye on this space to see what's coming! And to see what's recently happened, as it's been a busy month here!
But that's not what we're here to talk about. (Man, I just missed a great opportunity for a "I suppose you're all wondering why I've gathered you here tonight" moment. Oh well.)
No, we're here because I'm currently in the middle of one of my favourite parts of book production: cover design. Now, I don't know about you, but I always have plenty of ideas when it comes to cover design for my books. Some of them are good, most of them are terrible, and others are... interesting. Yes, ideas I have aplenty. What I do not have is the technical skill to make them (or a better version of them) a reality. (As you can see from some of my previous, template-based covers!)
So, I've been working with a wonderful designer who has been putting up with all my pedantic nit-pickiness (shout out to Hey You Media), who also designed the cover for my last book.
In any case, what I've been playing with lately is the struggle of how to encapsulate the mood, tone, characters, and hints of plot of a 100,000 word novel into a single 5x8 image. What image do you chose? What one image can say everything you want to say to a potential reader? Well, I thought I'd take you through some of the steps I'm in the middle of stumbling through right now.
This is not a How-To. I'm not going to give you a step-by-step process, at the end of which you'll have an award-winning cover. As previously stated, design is not my thing. These are just my opinions on how to find your way to getting the type of design you want. To be clear, I'm not going to tell you which pictures to choose. I'm going to offer an idea of how to start searching for them. Make sense? It will as we go on, I promise. First things first...
1) Judge a Book By It's Cover
I'm not saying it's the right thing to do. I'm saying that people do it anyway. And quite frankly, so do I. And why not? The world is full of books. Paperback, hardcover, ebook... there simply isn't enough time to look at each one, let alone read them all. Even within the boundaries of your favourite genre, literature is currently suffering from a population explosion so huge that Malthus is spinning in his grave like a roll of toilet paper in a kitten's paws. It's not all good fiction, but it's all there. And Average Joe and Regular Susan don't have time to click "Look Inside" on every link on the Amazon Top 100 List. You know, as an author, that a potential reader's eyes will skim past your cover faster than George R.R. Martin killed off your favourite character. So here's the scoop. You gotta play the devil's advocate. You have to anticipate the need for an eye-catching cover that gives a split-second summary of everything you tell your friends when they ask what you're writing now. Only do it without words. But how?
2) Do Your Research
This is not arduous homework. You don't need to go to the library and get shushed by a little old lady while poring over ancient textbooks. You aren't Indiana Jones and there's no rat-infested tunnel to a knight's grave under your feet. What I'm suggesting is, go to your bookshelf and see what you like. Pull out your box of heirloom DVD's and do the same thing. What do you like? Why do you like it? What grabs your attention and what does it tell you about the contents of that story?
Here's the secret of the day. You can't design something everyone will gravitate towards, just like you can't write something everyone will love. So start by designing the same way you write. Design something you'd like to see. Design a cover that you'd pick up off the shelf. To do that, first you have to know what it is that draws you in.
3) Answer the Unspoken Questions
Why do books still need covers? To protect the copyright page from dust bunnies? That doesn't make any sense at all, especially considering the percentage of ebook sales. Ain't no dust bunnies in cyberspace. No, there ain't.
I like to think of a cover as a still image trailer for your book. And just like with a trailer, some people like to see what the story's going to be, and some people like just a taste, with no spoilers. As I said in the last point, my advice is to follow your heart. But there is something to be aware of: a cover does have to answer some important questions, questions that the reader is asking without realising it. Here are some of the questions I think a cover has to... ahem... cover.
What is the genre of this book?
What is the tone of this book?
Who is the targeted audience of this book?
What makes this book different from the one next to it?
What do I want to reader to know about me as an author?
Yes, you're right. Title will help with a number of those. If I see that a book is called Mr. Flopsey's Magical Chocolate Bully Buster, I'll have a pretty good idea of who that book is aimed at and what the tone of it is going to be. But the visual factor cannot be overstated. Think of your book cover like a Superbowl Commercial. You only have a few seconds to catch an eye and pass on an idea, and you're fighting the target audience's desire to make a quick run to the toilet and grab some more nachos on the way back. You have to know what you want to say and say it.
Are there more Unspoken Questions? Yes. Am I going to go into them all now? No. Feel free to comment them below. This is called delegation.
4) Follow the Path You're Clearing
All the other bits and bobs of cover design, to me, can be dealt with by answering those questions. Font choice, colour schemes, the size of your name, etc. will all fall into place if you know what it is you're trying to say. Writing a fantasy epic? Stay away from balloon-shaped fonts. Is this your first book? No need for your name to take up half of the cover then; no one knows who you are. You have to earn that. (I'm talking to you, Agatha Christie!) But keep answering those questions and you'll find that lots of the other details will fall into place.
5) Themes in Hindsight
One of the above questions I didn't include was: Does your book have a theme? I think it deserves it's own point and here's why. New writers (and I'm guilty of this) tend to hammer a theme into a readers skull. Listen you! THUD. This is what this book is about! THUD. See what I've done? THUD. But if you've taken the correct and subtle route, allowing the theme to express itself so that the reader closes the book with a soft smile, a sigh, and then sits in their easy-chair for the next hour, contemplating the mysteries of life, then you've done something right. In this case, you can play with the subtleties of theme on your cover. The fun part of this is, if you've done it cleverly, the reader won't even notice it until the book is done, and then every time they pull it off the shelf to lend it to a friend (which they will, since it's a great book and you're a wonderful writer), they'll chuckle to themselves with a little nod and when their friend asks them what's so funny, they'll just tilt their head and say, "You'll see." That's a design win.
But subtlety is the name of the game. I've no interest in a book that screams, "I'M A LOVE STORY! SEE? THERE'S A BIG, RED HEART! THAT'S HOW YOU KNOW! LOVE ME!" Just like in the text, theme only works in design if you aren't hurting your reader with its ferocity.
To a lesser extent, plot-points, important items, and other minutia that are introduced halfway through a book can also be fun to have on a cover, as little rewards for a reader as they traverse your story-line. However, you should be warned: if the book is finished and the reader doesn't know what you're trying to say with the cover, then you've failed. Your book cover can have secrets to discover, but it isn't the back of the Declaration of Independence. You shouldn't need Nicolas Cage to decipher it. It's a balancing act. Don't forget - in your desire to be clever - that the front cover is still on the front of the book. It's the intro, not the conclusion.
6) Trust Your Designer
My final bit of advise is simple. If you've got yourself a good designer, trust them. Yes, I know, it's your baby, and you know it best, and you want to make sure that every detail of how good this book is gets onto that front cover. And they didn't even read it before they came up with the design. I mean, how dare they presume...!
Here's the deal. Remember this: your prospective readers haven't read the book yet either. They're seeing the cover with eyes you don't have: eyes that don't know the story, the plot, the characters, any of it. All they're seeing is the design. So the next time you curse your designer for not being intimately engaged with the world of your stories, remember that they're designing for people who aren't intimately engaged with the world of your stories. Yet.
So that's it for now. I know, this wasn't your normal "How To" post, full of examples and images. I'm not doing your homework for you. Like I said, I'm not a designer. That's the whole point. Hopefully, if you're still reading this, you'll walk away not with an idea to copy or a finished product in mind, but with the knowledge that you can get started on your very own, picture-perfect book cover now that you know which questions to ask.
And if not, there's plenty of room for terrible covers out there too, I can attest to that personally!
Interesting Exercise of the Day: Go onto Amazon or Goodreads or Google and search a single book. Find as many covers of that book as you can (new editions, republished, international editions, etc). Look at the changes and see if you can answer the Unspoken Questions. Why did they change it? Who is each edition targeting? Which one do you like, or dislike, and why?
Just when you think you've got it all figured out, it turns out that the path splits up ahead and you can choose to stay with the group and go left (turn to page 394) or venture out on your own and go right (turn to page 17). Either way, you don't know what's going to happen unless you cheat, flipping through the book to find the ending you want and working backwards. Don't judge me. We've all been there.
Recently, my own story has gone through a twist or two that have ended up with me returning triumphantly to the beautiful city of Victoria, capital of British Columbia, Canada. Honestly, it's a little odd to be back. The city feels much smaller than it did when I left; I suppose living abroad will do that. But there is a comfortable familiarity to it that is not at all unwelcome, especially as this return brings with it the beginning of a brand new phase of my life.
But the real question is: what will this mean for my writing?
Well, it means it will slow down for a short while, for one. Moving takes up all the time that normally went to tapping away at my keyboard. However, fear not! There are still a few things in the works that I think you'll love. Keep checking back for more info as I get ready to announce a thing or two!
And feel free to leave a message as a housewarming present!
- J.R. Vikse
So, here we are again, preparing for another Christmas, wondering who to shop for and what to get them, looking over what they got us last year to make sure we match their efforts with our own, whether generous or paltry. At least, that's what some people do. I've been too busy getting ready for a book table to think about much else, which - since it's still November - is probably for the best.
Well, that book table is coming up, at a local Christmas arts and crafts fair here in Kelowna, BC (for more info, visit my Appearances Page). Loads of books have arrived from the printer, boxes have been wrapped, candy canes have been seasonally presented, and the tree is lit and ready for visitors. Now all I need are readers! Here's hoping that this wintry season, people remember that amidst all the electronics and sugary snacks, some people still like to curl up in front of a warm fire, wrap themselves in a blanket, and read a good book.
- J.R. Vikse
It turns out I'm just not able to leave well enough alone. Thanks to the success of The Keeper Chronicles, I've been given the chance to go back and tell a few more stories from the world of Tranthaea, due to my own inability to let go, as well as the demand from the readers. That's why I decided to write five short stories that are, as of now, only available on this website. The stories vary in length and genre, but all of them bring you back to the world you fell in love with in the books; some even bring back a favourite character or two! (I'm talking to you, Vytus and Yrving Kindleflash!)
It has been a great deal of fun to return to this world, not only to revisit it but also to explore and discover new places and people. I had the chance to delve into some of the societies that were brushed past in the original trilogy. In these stories we explore some unique cultural aspects of the world, including games, religions, social structures, weapons and technology, and of course, relationships.
I hope you enjoy the stories as much as you enjoyed the trilogy! In these new pages you'll find a mystery, a treasure hunt, and a spy thriller, and that's just scratching the surface! Together, the five stories are just under 53,000 words (52,956, to be exact), about half the length of Playing with Fire. So there's plenty packed in there for you to read and enjoy!
- J.R. Vikse
All good things must come to an end, so they say. And so they do. I am both excited and strangely saddened to have published the third and final book in The Keeper Chronicles. It is an odd thing, to say goodbye to characters, places, indeed entire cultures that have been stewing in my brain for the past two years. They have been my constant companions, but no more. Now they are yours and I wish you well with them! But it appears that some of us - I won't name names - are not yet ready to be finished with this series. Whether in response to the urging of my readers or in an unspoken inability to let go (honestly a bit of both), I have not given up on Tranthaea quite yet. Instead, I've created a bit of new content that will be available exclusively online to allow readers to delve a little deeper into the fantasy world that I know and love. Enter The Keeper Chronicles: The e-ppendices. These features include a map of Tranthaea, a glossary of the terms, people, places, and things you need to know, and an interactive timeline to fill you in on some of the history of this fantastical world. I hope you enjoy exploring a little further into Tranthaea, and that you enjoy reading the complete trilogy!
- J.R. Vikse
There is nothing quite as satisfying as completing a project and finally putting to bed all the messy work that got you to that place, am I right? Well, that's what I'm feeling right now! My latest book has been edited to within an inch of my life and is finally out there for readers to dig into! And as if that weren't enough, my previous release is now available as an e-book. So, having just completed all these projects, you would think that I'd be taking a bit of a break, right? Unfortunately, this is not the case. I've already started writing my next book! I guess it's true: there is no rest for the wicked. And I'm definitely feeling wicked, in that I've been burning the candle at both ends! (There's a little pun in there for you all to enjoy while you wait for Amazon to ship my latest book to your home for some great new summer reading!) Enjoy!
- J.R. Vikse
I was recently lucky enough to take a trip to London with my wife for a few days, and while we weren't able to see nearly everything we wanted to in such a short amount of time, we were able to fit in a fair amount of sight-seeing as well as a couple of shows. For me, though, one of the highlights was a visit to Hyde Park, where I was able to retrace the steps of one of my characters - Callum Swift - as he raced through the park in the Prologue of my book; The Keeper Chronicles: Playing with Fire. Though things have changed from the maps I used to construct his Victorian-era chase, much is still the same, and to the left you can see a photo of the lamppost and the tree that feature so heavily in that section of his story. What fun it was to be there in person and see it! Have you ever visited a place from one of your favourite books?
- J.R. Vikse
I am very pleased to be releasing my third book today! Unlike either of my first two published works, this one is a short story collection; the tales contained within have been labours of love for over six years now!
There are some who would say it is dangerous to do so much genre-hopping so early in a writing career. I have written adult contemporary fiction, released the first of a youth fantasy series, and now this short story collection! But I am excited to be able to jump around and not confine myself to specific styles of storytelling. Your career is only young once, right? To butcher Hamlet: There are more stories in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in one genre of literature! (Apologies to Mr. Shakespeare.)
Perhaps the time will come when I concentrate my energy into a singular genre, but until then, I hope you enjoy the products of my wandering mind!
J. R. Vikse
Recently a friend of mine, and fellow aspiring writer, sent me a link to an Australian website (here) that had collected interviews with various authors discussing their work-spaces, and how they best used them. Some of the writers preferred emptier spaces, with blank walls or windows opening onto sweeping vistas, while others liked to work in cluttered areas, full of colour and visual noise to inspire them. Some liked to listen to music while they worked, others required silence so as not to be distracted. Some liked comfortable, plush chairs, others used hard, wooden-backed seats to keep them focused. The only thing these spaces had in common was that they were used for writing!
In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggests that new writers should start out with an emptier, private space that is conducive to creating an atmosphere of focus and intent. With time, he says, the writer will collect things that inspire but do not distract, and the space will soon be filled appropriately.
I found this all very interesting, as I normally need quiet to work: aurally, visually, mentally. The challenge for me is to create a space that is not distracting, but at the same time, not sterile. After all, the blank white page can be intimidating enough!